Are you listening?

One of the keys to successful negotiation is to listen and understand what’s REALLY being said by the ‘other side’. As a mediator and negotiator, listening is my stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean it happens easily.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve not slept well over the last couple of weeks. There’s a lot of it about, especially just now, but last week I became conscious of an effect that has wider implications than simply feeling a little weary for a few days.

Last week I attended a number of networking events. OK, nothing unusual in that – as a business, networking is an essential part of my marketing – but I noticed a key difference to my usual approach. I caught myself talking to people. Again, there shouldn’t be anything unusual about that, and its an essential part of any networking conversation. BUT someone had asked a question, I had answered it, and for some reason I found myself still talking.

I was explaining the background to the answer I’d already given, some theoretical aspects of negotiation, the rationale behind making management-staff partnership work more effectively. It was all good stuff!

But did they want to hear it? And was it even relevant to them or their business?

As I spoke, I realised I needed to listen.

Actively listen. So I switched back on, brought my discourse to a close by asking them a nice, open question about themselves while making a mental note to think more about what I’d just experienced.

So, what had happened? Reflection led me to conclude that I was tired, so I’d inadvertently taken the easy road. Listening passively is easy, it takes little effort and, in return, you get little for it. It’s also easy to talk. The difference with talking is that it can feel productive, even if it’s not. It’s often a case of “less is more”. The result was that I’d slipped towards passive listening and talking because my tired mind headed for the path of least resistance.

Active listening, on the other hand takes a bit of work.

Asking searching, relevant open questions, then listening to and processing the answers, often making connections with something they said earlier, takes concentration and application. But, much as the effort/return from passive listening is minimal, the return for active listening is significant: improved understanding and a genuinely rewarding conversation. In the context of business networking, it offers the potential to better understand what makes someone tick, what issues affect their business.

One final thought: active listening is not just a business skill, reserved for technical conversations, negotiations and mediation. It’s a skill that can enhance any conversation, any exchange, any relationship. And, no matter how much you practice, it’s always worth a wee sense check to make sure you’re actually using it!

Taking a Long Look at Yourself…

Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe
One of the disciplines that underpins mediation is the benefit that comes from reflecting on how a recent process has run. But it’s a habit that can have much wider benefits.

How well prepared was I? What went well, that I might want to repeat? Is there anything that I can learn and improve for next time? Reflective practice is considerably easier with a colleague to help prompt the thought process and provide constructive challenges to assumptions and conclusions, but it’s valuable to have a few techniques to guide yourself through the process when you’re alone. To do this effectively, it’s important to have ‘wound down’ properly from the process itself, taking the time to clear your mind enough to reflect more objectively on aspects of performance. In view of that, I thought I’d consider a range of events I’ve attended recently that turn out to have had a common theme running through them: mindfulness.

Connecting Sport and Business

There was an excellent Metis Edinburgh session recently, featuring a talk by Tony Stanger. After a career in high performance sports coaching, he has built a business from taking the disciplines and approaches that deliver in high level sport and applying them in a business context. One of his take-home messages was that to be a great leader, and draw the best from your staff, you also need to be a great coach. Through focused coaching, it is possible to embed thinking and approaches that will allow staff to consistently deliver better of themselves and grow their career while making the organisation more adaptable to changing business pressures.

One of the things that struck me after listening to Tony, and taking part in the discussion afterwards, was the overlap between the reflective practice I follow after mediating and the coaching/management approach Tony was encouraging. Alongside my business activities, I also coach High Performance match officials with Scottish Rugby. Much of that coaching builds on instilling a discipline of preparation and self-analysis. My input is primarily to facilitate the referees through that process – planning, problem solving and strategy development – alongside helping them to identify the areas on which they should be focusing and the most effective ways for them to improve and develop.

Stress and work

These approaches, underpinned by mindfulness practices that unblock thought processes, continue to grow in a business context, albeit their focus is primarily on senior managers rather than wider staff. This point was brought home to me at an Institute of Directors session this week, led by the excellent Gillian Dalgliesh, titled “Managing Stress in the Workplace”. Alongside considering the physiology behind stress and anxiety, and the long-term impacts arising from them, we ran through some techniques to manage stress in ourselves and others, many based on being mindful of the relevant sensations and taking action to address the triggers.

Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Sutherland

All of this links neatly back to the increasing awareness and growing use of mindfulness practices for business leaders, bringing me to the retreat I attended on the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland a few weeks ago. Organised and hosted by Natural Change, the retreat aims to “help you reconnect with yourself, with others and with nature to explore what matters to you”.

Natural Change Wilderness Retreats are for people who want to make a change in their personal life, in their professional work, in the world around them – or in all three.

The week featured an interesting blend of solo mindfulness techniques, paired facilitated reflection, slow contemplative walking and a more intense “solo” (an afternoon/evening spent alone in a remote part of the glen). For a more rounded view of the week, check out these updates from other attendees James Scipioni and Sarah Williams. For me, I came away with having rediscovered my love of being in remote countryside, and with a better understanding of why that is so good for maintaining my mental health – hence my trip last week to Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe.

Drawing things together

The common thread through all of these paragraphs is the emphasis on slowing down, being more ‘present’ and constructively analysing recent performance. Of course, the key is the “constructive” part of that, something that only really develops with practice.

This is a theme that continues, particularly in relation to conflict/dispute resolution and mediation. The beginning of June sees an event organised by Core Solutions at which Tim Hicks will explore the neural basis of conflict and communication, based on his recently published book on the subject.

As a topic that continues to gain interest, I’d be keen to find out other people’s experience of exercises in mindfulness, centring and grounding – do people find them universally beneficial? Do you find it really effective and helpful? Have you given it a try and moved on because it didn’t work for you? Or does it all seem a bit ‘new age’ to try in the first place?