Listen First.

Mar 15, 2012 No Comments by

 Change Agent Tip #25

One of my favorite parts of helping people deal with change is the chance I get to work with some incredibly talented leaders at all levels of my client organizations. One such leader had a great way of boiling complex behavioral expectations down to simple phrases that I like to call “guiding principles”. Today’s article will introduce one such principle that this leader and I established and emphasized as a part of several change initiatives in his organizations over the years. Here is the simple, yet profound concept:

Listen First.

Change Agents can increase their effectiveness in tangible ways by adopting a Listen First approach to just about every aspect of their work. To put this guiding principle into perspective, imagine yourself as a Change Agent acting in many roles:

  • You could be called upon to introduce a structured approach to an otherwise murky change situation.
  • You may be responsible for coordinating the communication needed for successful change implementation.
  • You’ll often be asked to diagnose and address change-related problems.

In each instance, I have found it incredibly helpful to Listen First. To illustrate, let me show how applying this technique has helped me in each of these situations.

Apply a Structured Approach to Change: In cases where I’ve been asked to introduce a disciplined approach to dealing with change, it’s usually because my client doesn’t have this tool set in house. Often they’re so consumed with their primary business that they haven’t had time to create one.

Some folks may be skeptical of your approach if you don't appear to be listening to them.

Like most consultants worth their salt, I bring a proven OCM methodology – but in each engagement, I tailor my generalized approach to the specific culture, timing and expected outcomes of the client. That tailoring would be impossible if I came in with a “my way or the highway” approach. Instead, I try to listen first to find out what the client’s goals, constraints and expectations are for the change, then adapt my general process to meet their specific change needs.

So as a Change Agent, you could be asked to provide and apply a structured change method that you learned in school, picked up from a course or read about in a book. I’d encourage you to avoid coming in with all guns blazing and righteously apply your knowledge as if you alone can save the day. Instead, listen first and use what you learn to customize your “textbook” approach to the unique situation.

I Know You Think You Heard What I Thought I Said, But… Communication is one of the most critical components of successful change and Change Agents are typically right in the middle of this activity.

Basic communication theory will tell us to:

  1. Analyze your audience and goals for the communication
  2. Develop communication content to meet the needs
  3. Deliver messages using appropriate modes and channels
  4. Gather feedback and fill communication gaps

I prefer to add a “step zero” to this list and listen first for a few important things:

  • Listen first to learn about the different groups of stakeholders and what specific (and variable) information the team needs each to receive from the communication.
  • Listen first to uncover the core message, the positive and potentially negative elements of the message and any constraints that should be described.
  • Listen first to what methods and channels have been most effective in the past and which have been utterly useless for delivering communication and should probably not be counted upon to get the job done this time.

You don't have to be a Superman to use your listening skills to do some heavy lifting on behalf of your change.

I’ve learned that communication that’s based on a thorough understanding of the context built by listening first is usually more effective and results in less communication re-work.

Doctor, Doctor! Change Agents are in their element when asked to diagnose and treat change-related problems such as change confusion, ineffective teamwork or resistance to change. Most textbooks will describe exactly what clues to watch for and how to recognize these problems, but I have to say that few tools have served me as well as just plain listening first.

I’ve also found that there can be a big difference between what you may hear, what you may see and what you may intuitively sense while listening for information to diagnose a change problem. Consider taking this listening approach:

  • Use your brain to listen for the data and facts you will hear within the numbers and words people choose to describe the problem.
  • Listen with your eyes to see the body language stakeholders and team members use as they walk through change-related problems.
  • Listen with your ears and heart to sense the tone people use as they describe a change issue. Don’t hesitate to let people wander a bit. People often wait to share emotional aspects of a change until they feel they can trust the person they’re talking with. These  underlying emotions can reveal more profound information than the data alone indicates.

As the picture above shows… listening comes naturally for some people.  Others have to work at it. We all can do it well with practice, so I sometimes counsel Change Agents to listen with their eyes, ears and minds open.

First Things First: As a Change Agent, you may be asked to drive communication, bring a structured approach to change or provide the momentum to resolve change-related problems and push a change over the top. In each of these cases, I’ve found that it’s much more effective to listen first and abandon the temptation to charge forward with  textbook answers.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Have you had the experience where a Change Agent refused to listen to alternative approaches and their stubbornness had a negative impact on the change?
  2. Are there any change agent situations where it makes more sense to talk first and listen second?


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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