Category Archives: listening

If you listen, service excellence follows

The capacity to listen is probably the most important skill that relates to service excellence. Without this capacity staff will not know the expectations of their customers, each other, or the key stakeholders of their communities. Organisations that provide great service are fantastic listeners; to their customers, to their key stakeholders and to each other within the organisation.

William Isaacs (1999) notes that our culture is dominated by sight. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second, yet sound only travels at 1,100 feet per second. In summary, William Isaacs says that in order to listen we must slow down.

How do you and/or your organisation slow down to listen?

Our hearing puts us on the map. It balances us. Our sense of balance is intimately tied to our hearing; both come from the same source within our bodies…Hearing is auditory, of course, relating to sound. The word auditory…most ancient root means “to place perception.” When we listen, we place our perceptions.
(William Isaacs, lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, consultant and author)

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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You’re Not Listening to Me! Audio Version

Gary Ryan from Organisations That Matter explains five key steps to enhance you’re capacity to listen.
Visit here to learn how you can enhance your communication skills so that you are more effective in your workplace.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

Discover how to prepare powerful Questions That Matter®

Preparing powerful questions can be one of the most important practices that a leader can include in their repertoire of leadership skills. Powerful questions have the following four characteristics:

  • They are genuine, meaning that we are open to whatever answers are provided
  • They are thought provoking
  • They invite another’s contribution
  • They act as a call to create

It is relatively easy to identify whether or not a powerful question has been used because the five outcomes from powerful questions include:

  • New thinking
  • New solutions
  • New partnerships
  • New products and services
  • Action that would not have otherwise occurred

On the surface creating powerful questions may seem easy. My experience has taught me otherwise. Just like any skill, the ability to develop powerful questions takes time and effort. In programs where we teach people about the importance of developing their questioning skills, the participants often experience difficulty in generating questions. People often say, “I’m really good at answering questions, I’m just not very good at creating them!”

We encourage people to adopt a practice whereby any meeting that you are about to attend, you spend some time thinking about the types of questions that you could consider asking. When adopting this practice there are at least two levels of questions that should be considered. These are the ‘Big Picture’ or strategic questions, and the second level is the action or event level questions. Most people have a tendency toward the action questions which often create a cycle of problems, questions and actions that may not be connected with the strategic possibilities that may exist.

Developing your questioning skills will enable your to develop the capability to catalyse and conduct more Conversations That Matter®.

For example I recently conducted a program where a team of participants were helping another participant (Dan) to prepare a list of powerful questions for a meeting that he was about to conduct with a team member Judith, the following week. Dan was an experienced manager and had authorised leave for Judith who had been with the organisation for about four months and had just completed a training program for her role. Judith had proven herself to be highly competent in her short time with the organisation. Two other staff were to share Judith’s duties while she was on leave. Dan had asked Judith if she was happy to train the two people to do her work and she had agreed to do so.

Dan was happy that he’d been able to allow Judith to go on leave and was pleased that two other staff had been trained to do her work. However, on the first day that Judith was on leave he discovered that while the two staff had been ‘shown’ what to do, neither of them had actually been given the opportunity to ‘do’ the work in their ‘training’ and therefore had little idea about how to do Judith’s work.

As a participant in our program Dan was preparing his list of questions with the help of the rest of the participants in his group. Initially, the questions that the group generated included:
o Did you know that the two staff didn’t really know what to do when you were on leave?
o What did you expect would happen on the first day of your leave?
o Why didn’t you train them properly?

To me, these questions were very much at the action/event level because they are focused on the detail that is ‘right in front of our eyes’. In this example it was clear that the staff had not been trained properly because their performance was lower than expected. Action-event level questions are like zooming in on an issue with a video camera. The problem with starting at action-event level questions is that if you are looking at the wrong picture you will zoom in on the wrong details!

Such responses are quite normal from our program participants because, once again, most of us are used to answering questions rather than designing them. When I asked the group how they would have responded to the questions themselves if they had been Judith, the group (including Dan) reported that they would probably feel like they were being attacked. I then asked Dan if Judith was a specialist in the field of training. He said “No.”
Dan had a sudden ‘a-ha’ moment and then said, “…yet I expected Judith to know exactly how to train someone in her job. Just because she could do her job doesn’t mean that she’d be able or competent to train someone else to do it. I have assumed for years that people could train others to do their job. Some people probably can, but not everybody.”

I then asked, “What performance outcome does your organisation desire when staff are ‘back-filled’ while on leave?” This was a strategic question, a ‘Big Picture’ question. “The same level of performance.” was Dan’s answer. “What system has the organisation created to ensure that the performance outcome that you desire will occur?” I continued.

“Well, other than staff training other staff to back-fill them, there really isn’t one. And come to think of it, we regularly have performance issues when staff go on leave, which then leads us to be reluctant to approve leave in the first place.”

Strategic questions enable us to zoom out, to take in the whole picture and to see how the system is contributing to the issue, not just a single individual.

We then focused back on the questions that Dan was preparing for his meeting with Judith. When generating the questions a member of the group then said, “Maybe it isn’t a meeting between Dan and Judith that we should be preparing these questions for. Maybe it is a meeting with between Dan and the rest of the organisation’s leadership team?”.

Dan had another ‘a-ha’ moment. “You’re right! That’s exactly who we should be preparing this list of questions for. My focus was in the wrong spot. It was very easy to blame Judith, but actually those of us leading the organisation need to take responsibility for this issue. Under-performance when people have gone on leave has been a problem for years.”

For the first time Dan’s thinking on this issue had shifted. Nothing more than a shift in focus from creating answers to creating questions and a couple of strategic questions had enabled Dan to think differently.

Finally after generating a list of questions for the Leadership Team (including both Strategic and action-event level questions), Dan was asked by another group member what his intentions regarding meeting with Judith would be. He answered, “I’ll ask her about her holiday and fill her in about what’s been going on while she was away. I’m not going to focus on the training, not yet, anyway. I was blaming her but it wasn’t her fault. It was ‘our’ fault, including mine. When the time is right I’ll seek her input to the new system that we clearly need to create.”

In conclusion I asked Dan and his group how they would feel if they were Judith when she had the ‘new’ conversation that Dan now had planned to have with her. “Great! I’d feel like Dan actually cared about me and was interested in my holiday.”

Think about the different outcomes that the two potential conversations with Judith would most likely create. Which outcome do you think is more likely to enhance Judith’s engagement with the organisation, and which one do you think is more likely to reduce her engagement? Clearly the new conversation that Dan was planning to have with Judith is more likely to enhance Judith’s engagement with the organisation.

Preparing questions before meetings is a very powerful practice to include in your repertoire of leadership behaviours. Remember to prepare some strategic questions, and as soon as possible to introduce them to your conversation. A simple, yet effective action-event level question to be asked after discussing your strategic questions is, “What will we do next?”.

If you are trying this practice for the first time, please let us know how you go. In addition, please share the questions that you used that seemed to be effective in helping the people with whom you are working to shift their focus to a more strategic level.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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Virgin Australia Listens and Responds

When I ask people if they are proactive with providing feedback to organisations a common response is, “What’s the point? They won’t listen to me anyway so I don’t bother doing it. If I can, I just take my business elsewhere.”

You may have been following my recent experience with Virgin Australia. You can review the story here if you like. While it took some time from start to finish, Matt Dixon from the Office of the CEO at Virgin Australia did a wonderful job in recognising the seriousness of my issue, respecting his fellow Virgin Australia team members by investigating their side of my experience and even exploring my issue beyond the boundaries of Virgin Australia.

My original purpose for contacting Virgin Australia was to ensure that poor passenger behaviour be managed appropriately.

The outcome of my feedback is that the crew involved in the flight have been re-trained in following existing Virgin Australia procedures as they relate to managing unruly passengers. In addition, by the end of July all Virgin Australia crew will have received re-training on this issue.

A final outcome is that the passenger at the centre of my experience is now known to all domestic airlines and the relevant authorities. It is safe to say that this person will not be flying in Australia for some time.

The point of sharing this story with you is to highlight that it is worth providing feedback to organisations when the issue is one that really concerns you. No doubt Virgin Australia does need to improve on its systems and processes so that issues such as mine don’t require the intervention of the Office of the CEO for them to be resolved. Ultimately that is one of the purposes of such an office and I give Virgin Australia credit for having a system where issues such as mine can be resolved at that level when the rest of the system fails.

Hopefully passengers will not be at risk of having a similar in flight experience to myself. That is the outcome that I had hoped would be achieved and Virgin Australia have proved, ultimately that they were prepared to listen and credit should be given where it is due.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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The Art of Skilful Questions

Effective communication often consists of the ability to slow down your mind so that you can listen to what is being communicated to you. Note that I have said, “Communicated to you” rather than, “…said to you.” In oral communication, the words we actually say are only a fraction of what we are communicating. For those of you who have English as your second language you would understand this concept very easily. While developing your competency at speaking English, the words that you use are often only a fraction of what you are trying to convey in your mind (where you use are using your first language to speak to yourself). Our body language tries to compensate for us in that it communicates for us while we speak. The challenge that we have is that our body language and our words aren’t always in agreement!

It is for this reason that the art of asking good questions is so important. When you are truly listening you are more able to hear what is not being said, and better able to listen to what the body language may be telling you. Good listeners know that anything they believe that they heard, or did not hear but was said “between the lines” is just an assumption…until it is confirmed or otherwise by the person they were listening to. Rather than believing that their assumptions are always accurate, good listeners ask questions. The questions that they ask are designed to help them to develop their understanding. Good listeners, through the use of artful questions, can also help other people to better understand what they are trying to say as well. Wise people and mentors have known this for thousands of years, which is why the good ones are both good listeners and skilful questioners.

Read the attached article by Michael Marquardt. His suggestions for developing the art of becoming a good questioner are exceptional. You may like to contribute to the discussion on this topic as well and share your experiences; both of having been asked great questions and your own experience of using them yourself.

Marquardt – The Power of Great Questions.pdf

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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Improve your listening by enhancing the quality of your conversations

So you are in yet another meeting. The conversation is flying back and forth yet you feel frustrated by the lack of people really listening to each other. In fact, you find yourself waiting for a ‘gap’ in the conversation so you can throw your two cents worth into the debate.

The meeting ends. Everyone respectfully nods at each and walks out feeling that the meeting was largely a waste of time, again! You wonder why so many of the meetings that you attend seem to go around and around without people really listening to each other. You try to listen yourself but you find that your listening is just as bad as everyone else’s. The real cost as a result of the time wasted in these meetings seems to high to even calculate. Yet the problem persists.

Yes you have been to communication workshop after communication workshop. But it seems that learning to become a better listener is like shouting at grass to grow. Just because someone says that you should listen and paraphrase and watch your body language doesn’t actually mean that you’ll become a better listener, just like grass won’t grow any faster just because someone is shouting at it!

What if there was a technique that enabled you to become a better listener, yet didn’t require you to specifically focus on listening?

If you shift your focus away from becoming a better listener to becoming a contributor to higher quality conversations, it is amazing how your listening improves! Higher quality conversations or Conversations That Matter® enable us to see things differently; new horizons, new possibilities, new ways of working together which result in tangible benefits such as new innovative products, new savings, better efficiencies. As Juanita Brown and David Isaacs shared in their wonderful book, The World Cafe, “…accepting the centrality of human conversation as a key organisational means for achieving desired results entails a profound shift of mind – from seeing conversation as a peripheral activity to seeing conversation as one of the organizations most valuable assets.”

So how do you even start to create this profound shift of mind?

One way is to start to focus on the quality of the questions that you ask in a conversation. Think about it. What positive difference to the quality of conversations that you participate in would an improved quality of questions (even from just one person), make to that group’s conversation? Brown and Isaacs suggest that focusing on the right questions themselves is a powerful way to enable people to open their minds to higher quality conversations. For example, what if in one of the meetings described above you asked, “What questions, if answered, would enable us to achieve the results that we truly desire?”
Part of the reason for the consistently low quality of conversation that many of us experience in organisations is due to the fact that most people are focusing on answers rather than discovering the right questions that are worthy of an answer. For example, how easy would you find it to come up with questions in response to the question above, without trying to answer your own questions first? It is my experience that many people are uncomfortable focusing on generating questions (without answers) largely because it is a skill that has had little attention or focus throughout their development.

At your next meeting, as you follow the conversation, try focusing on this question, “What’s the most powerful question that I could ask that will help to improve the quality of this team’s conversation?”.

A side benefit of focusing on asking powerful questions is that your listening will improve, without you having to focus on it. Try it, you will see that this is true.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with regard to enhancing the quality of your workplace conversations through improving your questioning skills.

If you are interested in discovering how to ask ‘Questions That Matter®’ you may wish to join my free webinar on that topic on Thursday 22nd October, 2010. Please register here if you are interested.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at

Do you listen ‘…with your answer running’?

Last night I was facilitating a workshop for mentors for Monash University, Australia’s largest university. Throughout the workshop the participants had been holding a conversation regarding the importance of listening. One participant suggested that if you listen, “…while your answer is running in your head, then you are not listening at all.”

I had never heard this description for not listening and it struck me a s a clear example of what really does go on when people are supposed to be listening.

Often people are simply waiting for the other person to stop speaking so that they can ‘take their turn’ and now say what they have been preparing to say. Recently I facilitated a development half day for an executive team and one of the activities that I facilitated was called Turning Points. In that activity participants share significant events in their lives that, if they had not occurred the person believes that they would not be in the physical room on that day; they would be somewhere else in the world because their life would have travelled a different path.

Due to the personal nature of the stories I ask the participants to, “Do whatever it takes to listen with one hundred percent attention”. After people have shared their stories we then talk about the quality of listening that was occurring throughout the conversation.

Participants commonly report that they couldn’t believe how much they ‘heard’. When asked why they heard so much, the regular reply is, “I wanted to hear what they had to say. I wanted to give them my full attention. I didn’t have any opinions about what they were saying so it made it easier to listen”.

I then ask team members if the quality of listening that they just experienced is regularly present in their team meetings. “Rarely, if ever” is the normal response.

Listening is regularly listed as one of the most important characteristics of effective leaders. So how do you listen with 100 percent attention when you do have an opinion about what the other person is saying?

A couple of techniques to consider are to consciously make the choice to listen to someone. You might even say to yourself, “I am going to listen to this person with one hundred percent attention.” Choosing to listen to someone from the perspective of trying to understand fully what they are saying is a powerful way to enhance your listening. It re-enforces that your own opinion is not worth saying of even fully formulating until you have understood the other person to the best of your ability.

Statements such as, “What I think you just said was…” are ways of checking your understanding.

Listening is not easy. In fact my view is that it is the most difficult of all the skills of effective leadership. yet it is also a critical skill to master. So it is worth making the effort to:

  1. Make the conscious choice to listen; and
  2. Listen first to understand.

What practical tactics to you use to enhance the quality of your listening, particularly when you are in team meetings and you do have strong views about the topic?

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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