Thinking Outside the Inbox

The power of listening in silence

One of my best friends, Christopher Jamison, is a monk. He’s not any old monk, he is Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation. I first met Christopher in 1995 at Ashridge, where we both participated in the Action Learning for Chief Executives programme. At the time I was running a subsidiary of Adecco, the world’s largest employment agency, and he was Headmaster of Worth School in Sussex. As we shared our experiences, perspectives and challenges, I became fascinated by the ethos and culture of monastic life – although I wasn’t tempted to join up! One aspect which I’ve re-visited recently is silence. The Benedictine Rule has much to say about the value of silence and the benefits of clearing the mind of distractions.

Fast forward to this week and I was asked to share and facilitate a technique that helps deepen customer, colleague and other stakeholder relationships within the mortgages business of a UK bank. Now many of you reading this blog know how busy and “noisy” everyday working life can be. It’s not only the noise from the inbox, it’s the wall-to-wall calls, one-to-ones and meetings that dominate our diaries. When was the last time you spent time listening to what’s on someone else’s mind, without interrupting so you can “solve” their issue for them?!

So I decided to ask this group of 100+ leaders to pair up and spend 10 minutes each as the Speaker and then as the Listener. The Speaker spoke for 8 minutes about something on their mind, either professional or personal. During this time, the Listener didn’t speak, but actively listened using encouraging nods and smiles. After around 8 minutes, the Listener finds a good moment to ask just one question, “What do you want to do about this?” After 10 minutes, the roles are reversed and then after 20 minutes, the pair spend 5 minutes describing their experiences as Listener and Speaker and how they might use this technique with their teams, their peers and even their customers?

So what happened? Firstly, many people found that as the Speaker, they were able to find their own solutions to the issues they described. The Listener had simply been able to help them create a safe bubble to have a conversation with themselves. The value for the Listener was for some, even more profound. Someone said that they now realised how much time they spend “fixing” other people’s “problems” instead of helping others to find their own solutions. It also emerged that a Listener who interrupts and speaks too much, is really not interested in the Speaker, it’s an exercise in narcissism!

This technique isn’t new and it’s not only the Benedictines who understand the power of silence. The Quakers too developed a deep listening exercise they call the “Clearness Committee”. HBR published a short article by Greg McKeown on this practice and I recommend you read it.

So why not try this technique yourself and remember that when we “listen” it’s not all about us, our opinions and our ego. It also works in our personal relationships, although as I always say at offsites, I’m not sure my professional liability insurance covers me for divorce!