Feature image: Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Listening. It’s an art, not necessarily a science. Not everyone is good at it, but everyone wants to be heard. This can lead to big challenges and even conflict, which often results in a call to us for help.
We recently worked with an association that was dealing with significant challenges facing the entire industry. The issues had been broiling for some time. With several players around the table, and several deep seeded opinions and perspectives, the group had reached a stalemate that was turning toxic.
Rather than diving into our typical agenda, we started the session with 90 minutes of straight up listening. Everyone had an equal opportunity to lay out their thoughts without judgement or interruption, giving the group an opportunity to hear the different perspectives in an organized and fair way.
We took a similar approach with another client – a group of diverse community stakeholders who were coming together to tackle a thorny issue. Everyone came into the room thinking they were on a different side. We spent the first half of the meeting just trying to get people to listen. We needed them to see each other as people – rather than opponents. Over multiple meetings, we repeated this approach and eventually helped to dissolve the vilification that had been forming.
In the first case the problem wasn’t clear. In the second, the imperative wasn’t clear. If we hadn’t stopped to listen first, we would have plowed forward without a mutual understanding. Eventually, we would have been bogged down and forced to go backward.
Here’s the crux of it: For cross-functional teams to work well, they need to go slow, to go fast. The going slow is about taking time to really understand each other's perspectives.
It’s kind of a magic word. Perspective. It’s so important, we are adding it as a crucial element to our “4 P's”. Perspective is woven through each stage: Purpose, problem, plan and principles. We must always be checking in on perspective and adding to it.
Having perspective means being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s about building empathy and investing energy into nonjudgmental listening in an effort to understand where others are coming from.
This is really hard for some people. It’s a lot easier to put the blinders up and stay focused on our own lane, rather than try to see how somebody else sees a situation.
Having perspective is also about seeing a bigger picture and greater complexity. In “High Conflict, Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out”, Amanda Ripley calls this ‘expanded view’. I’ve also heard it called ‘going to the balcony’.
Problems are complex. Society is complex. Issues are complex. Nothing is simple. When the imperative of a team is less clear, more complex, confusing or even really urgent – we need to spend more time building perspectives. Ensuring the whole picture has been painted before deciding how to move forward.
That is how perspective leads to problem-solving. Rather than coming in with a black and white picture of a situation, we need to be open to the possibility of other solutions. There may not be a “right” or a “wrong”. There might not even be a solution. There may only be steps forward.
This isn’t something you can check off on your “to do” list (“Build perspective: Check!”). It’s an ongoing process that must be revisited regularly. As facilitators, we cycle back to it at every phase, eventually working it into the group’s DNA.
OK, that all makes sense. But how do you actually put this into practice?
It starts with setting the right tone. You have to let people talk without interruption or rebuttal. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting them talk for 30 minutes. Limit their time, so everyone gets a piece of the floor. Everyone gets a turn. Talking about the collective issues facing them helps the group set aside competition and find balance.
Encourage members of the group to repeat back the other side. (“I understand you feel…”, “If I heard you right… ”) People can still disagree, but at least they will see where each other is coming from.
Park your instinct to rebut or jump in. Just listen. Focus so you don’t miss the story. Go into these conversations without an agenda. You are there to listen, to really hear what the other person is saying.
Important: This is an exercise in creativity, not compromise. If we can see the bigger picture, we can envision different paths to the solution and find a way forward. We can solve a problem we all care about without having to “give something up”.
Again, this is hard. It’s not always as simple as labeling yourself “Switzerland” and burying your opinions and judgements.
Part of the superpower here is knowing when to call for help. Ask a third party to manage it for you. It’s much easier for a facilitator to guide the conversation when they aren’t emotionally invested.
We are trained and skilled in the art of listening. You have all the answers. You may just need a little help uncovering them. A little help to tap into the magic “P” and build new perspectives to find a clear path forward.
Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.