Improve your conversations by being a better listener

Active listening doesn’t mean just waiting for your turn to speak. It means being fully engaged

There’s nothing worse than having a conversation with someone, especially on a topic that’s important, and you see the other person’s eyes glaze over. Or stare into the mid-distance. Story listening is essential to being a good communicator. Here’s how to do it well.

1. Remember that communication is a two-way experience. Now, more than ever, the way people do business is participatory. It’s no longer the broadcast, top-down way of communicating. Social media has changed that for ever. Increasingly, it’s about a dialogue — which means active listening.

Author Steve Denning puts it like this: ‘Obviously, I’m a great fan of storytelling. And yet, I have to say, there’s also something basically wrong with the term, “storytelling”. If you take it literally, it implies a kind of one-way relationship: “I tell and you listen.” The kind of storytelling that I advocate in The Secret Language of Leadershipis very much two-way. It’s interactive. There’s at least as much “story listening” as “storytelling”.’

To become a good story-listener, ask the right questions. If you ask:

  • ‘why’ or ‘what’ – you’re likely to get an opinion
  • ‘how’ – you’re likely to learn the process
  • ‘when’ and ‘where’ will usually get a story because it takes people to a specific moment in time. Such as, ‘When did you move house?… I moved house in 2008… it was just after the GFC…’
  • But the simplest question to ask is, ‘What happened?’

2. Active listening doesn’t mean just waiting for your turn to speak. It means being fully engaged. So, no checking on your phone while listening to a friend recount her day. Show her that you’re interested by occasionally nodding, asking questions, and saying ‘yes’ or ‘uh huh’. These appreciative noises tell the other person you are engaged.

Nancy Kline has done pioneering work on the power of listening in The Thinking Environmentwhich shows how people can actually think — and therefore communicate — better when they are listened to in a respectful way. In fact, that people’s freshest thinking happens when they know they won’t be interrupted. Having done two trainings in this approach, I can attest to this. It’s amazing that when we know we aren’t going to be interrupted, we actually go deeper in our thoughts. It allows us to relax — and for the person listening, they stay curious and the whole experience is more enriching.

3. Don’t interrupt or redirect a conversation to your agenda.In short, stop being a conversation hog. Take turns speaking but respectfully wait for your turn. Avoid thinking of your answer while the other person is talking: that will take away your attention from them and they will notice (and feel it). Also, remember that people pick up on non-verbal cues, so stay present while they are talking.

4. Be open and don’t judge.Try not to impose your opinion on someone else. Come into any conversation with the mindset that you can agree to disagree. Withhold blame and criticism.

5. Feedback encourages a deeper dialogue.Be able to receive and provide feedback. Acknowledge what the other person is saying by reiterating what you understand from the conversation. Say things like, ‘Do you mean…’ or ‘From what I gather…’, ‘If I’m hearing you right…’ This tells the other person that you are not only listening but also processing what they are saying, encouraging them to say more.

Now, go forth, and listen with whole-ears and whole-heartedly, and see what a difference it makes.

Tell me a story

While storytelling in business has become a catchphrase, it’s often misunderstood as a marketing or branding tool.

Here’s how accountants can harness the power of storytelling to better engage, and inform, their audiences and become better business partners.

THE NUMBERS TELL the story. At least, that’s what many accountants would have us believe.
“Accountants are so used to talking in numbers, we forget to contextualise what it is all about,” says Grant Anderson CA, head of government relationships at Xero in New Zealand.

“Storytelling is so fundamental, particularly if you can hook into the underlying emotion within the story.”

While storytelling in business has become a catchphrase, it’s often misunderstood as a marketing
or branding tool. Some of the misconceptions come from the word itself. After all, ask a group of chartered accountants what they think when they hear the word “story” and the response is likely to be fiction, waffle or not about work.

William Meek, CFO at Mercury, an energy company in New Zealand, is something of a convert. Mercury is making a concerted effort to use stories more effectively, both orally and in written communication.

“We’ve certainly got better,” says Meek, who views storytelling as helping deliver the strategic objectives of the company in language that the staff understands.
Recently when explaining some of the company’s products and services during the half-year results, Meek and his team talked to their investors about one initiative that gives away “free power days”.

“We let our customers pick a day within the next three months and on that day their electricity will be free. This is worth about NZ$8, but the value to customers is much more. You’ll hear stories about how customers have done all their washing or all their baking. We relay that excitement, and the surprise our customers feel at this unexpected offer, to our investors.” Not only is this story more concrete – and memorable – than simply reporting, it helps explain why the company has chosen this approach.

So often, continues Meek, accountants like to say “profit was up 10% from the year before”.
“But, tell me why. That’s the insight you’re looking for.

“At Mercury, we are very keen on making our finance staff very effective business partners… who [have] an advisory role in both strategic and operational decision- making to ultimately drive better business performance.”

Explaining data
Accountants need to change the way they communicate, says Anderson.

“Accounting is seen as a blackart and the profession has done a great job of shrouding what we do in mystery. That comes at a price.

“Not everybody thinks in a numeric way. Some people think conceptually, others think in words or pictures, so if we can tell our story in the broadest way possible we’re going to engage the audience much more.”

As data becomes the new gold, the people who work with data need to become better able to convey the insights to the decision-makers.

In 2009, Google’s Chief Economist Hal R Varian said the ability to understand data, process it, extract value from it, visualise it and to communicate it was going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades. Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, a Melbourne-based company with a large network of business storytelling consultants, agrees.

“There’s a big misconception that people have: on the one hand there’s the data, and on the other there’s the story. You need to layer information, use infographics, tell the story orally, for the real story to come out.”

Today, Meek says that people in finance, particularly those in an external-facing role, “need to tailor their communications to the audience and put yourself in their shoes. When dealing with experts, our jargon can stay, but if you talk to a retail investor about NPAT (net profit after tax), people will look at you funny. Just say profit.”

Whether in accounting, IT or project management, says Mark Schenk, Managing Director at Anecdote, “the number one thing to realise is the limitations of the way we are traditionally taught to communicate. Once people get that, they realise that their technical language is completely useless for this stuff. This is where stories can help by being more memorable and most importantly, they can package an important message in a way that is more palatable, understandable and more influential.”

Anderson agrees, saying: “This is particularly important for public accountants. When you’re dealing with a range of small, medium and large business clients, you have to know what they actually want, you can’t tell the message in the same way to everybody because they won’t grab it.”

So how do stories work in practice?
In 2013, Rosheen Garnon FCA, then National Managing Partner of Tax at KPMG, worked with Schenk on developing a strategic story to better explain the strategy of the tax practice.

“A number of the partners were not connecting with the strategy and staff were worried about more redundancies,” says Schenk. “We helped craft a story that acknowledged the difficulties the team faced, including the impact of the GFC which had dramatically changed the tax business. By talking about the redundancies we took the fire out of the issue. It’s important to acknowledge what we call anti- stories — any stories that run counter to the official narrative.”

For Garnon, what was most valuable about the process was “working out how I would tell the story. By drawing upon my own expertise and being able to come up with what I described as connecting points, I became more invested in how I was communicating and others could see the emotion going through the conversation.” The next step was allowing members of the leadership team “to tell the same story with their own experiences. This led to a powerful multiplier affect.” Four years later Garnon, now a director of Creative Partnerships Australia, still uses the technique.

“What I saw was that by sharing those stories, it actually became easier for people to relate to
me, so you form better working relationships as a result.”

In another workplace, the culture of sharing stories is quite different. At Xero, this practice reinforces “why we all turn up to work in the morning”, says Anderson.

“When we hear from a small business administrator, who could be the plumber’s wife, saying, ‘it’s great I’ve got my Sunday nights back, I can spend that time with my children’, that’s really powerful for us.”

For Meek, it’s not just positive stories that are effective. Even those that involve disclosure are important.

“A serious injury occurred in one of our offices where a woman fell down the stairs,” he says. “It was a bad thing but rather than saying we had one LTI — loss time injury — we said, ‘we had a serious injury where someone fell down stairs and had quite a lot of time off work, but she’s okay and she’s back at work now.’ That’s a simple story but much more significant.”

How much to disclose
From my own experience working with leaders to help them develop their stories, I know they struggle with bringing in the personal element. Often they’ve been taught throughout their whole career just to give the facts. Sometimes this is cultural. A number of Asian women I spoke to, all Certified Practising Accountants, described how culturally they didn’t feel comfortable talking about themselves in a professional situation. However, I always say that personal stories are more compelling because it’s your own experience that touches the listener, and that we are all hard- wired to tell stories. You just need a bit of technique and some practice.

“It’s a challenge opening up about yourself,” admits Anderson. “Lots of accountants aren’t known for having the most sparkling personalities in the world – I can say that because I am one myself. But it’s the only way to get your team on board and show them the real you.”

For some, it can require a leap of thinking — and some risk because you reveal an element of your character. But the reward is worth it, says Schenk.

“And if it’s too personal you simply don’t use the story even if it does make a good business point.”

In fact, says Garnon, “Once people in finance learn the technique of storytelling, it isn’t any more difficult than anything else.”

We have more ways than ever to communicate, so why are we losing the art?

Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.

I was sitting in an Uber a few weeks ago when the driver raised the topic of communication. ‘Young people just don’t know how  to keep a conversation going,’ he said. ‘They’re losing the art.’ I wondered aloud if it’s because they’re distracted, on their phones. ‘No, it’s more than that. It’s like how people communicate is actually changing.’ 
Now, you don’t just notice this with young people. It’s becoming an epidemic in businesses. I find it ironic that in an age where we have more channels than ever to communicate, people and brands struggle to do it well. Often in business, soft skills are viewed one-dimensionally — as just about the words you say. The art of smart communication requires a lot more. 
Conversations make the world go round. It’s how we share knowledge and experiences. How great ideas are spread. How we engage and motivate teams. 

20 ways to improve communication at work and build emotional connection

Content: think about what you want to say.

1. Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order.Sounds obvious, but if you speak before you think, you’ll probably come across as vague and waffly. The natural order of things is to think first before you speak. Unfortunately, few politicians have heard of this advice.

2. Think about your audience.If you’re talking to a peer about a project you’re both steeped in, it’s okay to use acronyms or shorthand. But if you’re speaking to an external stakeholder, you’ll need more explanation. Don’t assume the other person has the same level of knowledge as you.

3. Business jargon is a no, no.Some of the best communicators of our generation, like Tony Fadell, father of the iPod, breaks down his crazy, amazing, and highly specialised wisdom into bite-sized pieces that we can all understand.

4. If it’s an important conversation, take time to map it out — on paper or in your head.Practise with a trusted colleague or coach. Visualise yourself having the conversation before you actually do so.
Hour-glass communication 

5. The more specialised you are in a subject, the more you’re likely to communicate poorly to people who don’t share that specialisation.This extends point 3 above. One way around this is to always think of your context first, the scene setting, before you dip into the detail. Then choose 2/3 salient examples to illustrate your points, before then going broad again at the end. This way of communicating looks like an hour-glass — you start wide and broad, explain the bigger picture, then go specific — before widening out at the end.

Harness the power of stories

6. Stories can be an excellent way to explain a topic that is difficult to understand, or that requires ‘bringing to life.’ Finance legend, Kathy Murphy, President, Fidelity Personal Investing, is a pro at this. She’s  known for sharing her own stories and experiences to educate people about investments and personal finances. This makes her relatable. Richard Branson does so, too.

7. Our brain loves facts but they can be overwhelming. Facts and figures engage a small area of the brain but stories and metaphors have a way of engaging multiple brain regions that not only stimulate logic but elicit emotional responses. Facts provide a hook for the brain but our colourful word choice is what maintains attention.

8. Structure your stories in such a way so they trigger multi-sensory cortices: motor, visual, olfactory, auditory, etc.Engage the senses by describing how the ‘strong aroma of coffee lifts the spirits’ or how the ‘cool rain on my skin brings back teenage memories.’

9. The best communicators know this template by heart: the template of human drama and the triumph of the indomitable spirit:It starts with facing challenges, overcoming adversity and immortalising the lesson. Make your stories memorable by using this template. Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o, uses intentional transitions to reveal her own hopes and emotions in order to inspire people.


Better delivery: ensure your message cuts through the noise 

10. Good communication requires a whole-brain approach.Great communication requires the heart as well as the head.

11. It’s important to realise that what people don’t say is as important as what they do say.Be aware of the silences, not just the words.

12. According to communication expert, Judy Apps, author of the lyrical, thought-provoking The Art of Communication,our brains have a huge impact on how well we communicate.While the left-brain focuses on words and arguments, and is directed towards an outcome, most elements of communication are right-brain related: meaning, inference, intention, context, tone, facial expression, gesture, humour, irony and metaphor. You need to be aware of both elements.

13. When you communicate succinctly, think about the how — not only the what.Consider body language, gestures, eye contact and facial connection. Avoid negative body language like crossing your arms, keeping your head down, or averting your eyes.

14. Watch for a mismatch between what you’re saying and your body language, people pick up on that. There’s a non-verbal aspect of communicating called subtle non-verbal responses: this is being aware of what else is going on.

15. If you nod ‘yes’ while saying ‘no’ people will think you’re not completely telling the truth. An example of this is the aptly termed ‘duping delight’. It’s when a liar says he didn’t do it but smiles at an inappropriate moment.

16. Dr John Lund, author ofHow to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing With Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities(now that’s a mouthful!) says people take more cues from what you’re NOT saying versus what you are saying. He goes on:

  • 92 per cent of communication is non-verbal
  • 55 per cent  is based on your facial expressions and your body language
  • 37 per cent  is based on the tone of your voice
  • only 8 per cent is based on the words you say.

17. Think about the place you hold an important conversation.Avoid being somewhere noisy or at the coffee machine. This lets your listener/s know that he/she is important enough to have your undivided attention.

18. Be assertive.This is not about being hostile or contentious. But expressing your feelings confidently, honestly, and openly while being respectful of others. Effective communication isn’t about forcing your opinion on others but trying to understand the other person.

19. Keep stress in check.Speak calmly and strategically, with pauses to collect your thoughts.

20. Your breathing is also part of the way  you communicate. Breathe at a steady pace.

So wherever you are, in an Uber, in a lift, practise some of these skills. Hopefully, you’ll become more equipped to be a better communicator — a skill we’ll all need as we navigate new channels, and move rapidly into voice-first technology. Bring back the art of better conversation. Everyone has a story to tell.

So, will you tell it?