by Ken Neal | 3/23/15
This my second column in a three-part series on how sharpening six key communication skills can help information managers succeed—in their current job and in their career. As a reminder, these skills function together, as an integrated system or “communications workflow,” adding up to much more than any one skill individually. Previously, I focused on being brief and being clear. In this post I spotlight the third skill, being receptive, which includes asking questions and listening.
The foundation for effective business communication, which consistently yields important data that allows the organization to succeed, is to ask questions and listen very carefully—in a way few of us have been trained to listen.
What are the Risks?
Let’s start with asking questions—and what better way to begin this topic than by . . . asking a question. What are the risks for a records manager or IT professional who don’t take the time to ask carefully considered questions? If you’re a records manager, one of your responsibilities is to make sure your company is compliant with its records management policy and schedule. If you’re not asking questions (and listening), you won’t know what you should be doing in terms of problems and opportunities. Is everyone getting the information they need when they need it, from the receptionist to the c-level executive?
If you’re an IT manager, you need to be aware of complaints that the IT department is receiving. Perhaps the company website is not functioning properly or the network is suddenly too slow. Are you waiting until these and other problems get out of hand or are you proactively investigating by asking questions, listening to the answers, diagnosing the problems and implementing solutions quickly and effectively?
It’s up to each of us to formulate good questions that are more likely to obtain the data we want, encourage the actions we want to motivate and gain the results we want to achieve. The foundation of crafting a quality question is to clarify your purpose in asking it. You can define your purpose by asking a few concise questions tailored to your audience. These include:
1. What do I want to obtain with this question? (information, feedback, an approval, a commitment)
2. Who am I asking? (someone I know well, someone I am not familiar with, a decision maker, an influencer)
3. Is this a good time to ask? (probably not if the question is not critical at the moment and my boss is under a tight deadline to prepare a presentation for the national meeting)
4. Is the question phrased well? (phrased so that I maximize my chance of getting the answer I want)
Let’s now look at a hypothetical example of how you might leverage these questions, imagining that you are a records manager who wants to drive adoption of training program.
1. What is my purpose? (Get management to implement a records management training program.)
2. Who am I asking? (Our company’s CFO.)
3. When is the right time to ask? (At our monthly department meeting. As head of the department, the CFO attends the meeting and is open to discussing new programs.)
4. How can I tailor my question? (I know that enterprises in our industry are particularly vulnerable to litigation and that we are not as prepared as we should be for a possible legal discovery request. As part of tailoring my question, I could provide an actual example of what happened to a company that went through a discovery crisis due to lack of training for its records managers.)
All four questions highlighted above underscore an important point. Whether asking questions, listening or exploring answers, when communicating with upper management meet executive needs by clarifying how your proposal will meet the company’s overall strategic objectives, rather than one unit or business process.
The Challenge of Listening
Research shows that, despite what we may think, most of us are relatively poor listeners. Why? One reason is that we receive little, if any, training designed to improve our listening skills. On way to improve your listening skills is to know what to listen for. This includes listening for content, or facts.
One way to improve your skill at listening for facts is to listen as if you will have to explain what is being said to someone else. For example, an executive has just made an important point about a proposed records management program. You could say, “Let me be sure I have this right. You are saying that updating our records retention policy is a good idea, but you’re not sure everyone on the team will agree? Rephrase the executive’s comment to make sure you’re on the same wavelength.
Another way to become adept at listening for facts is to judge the content of what someone is saying, not the way they are saying it. People may not use the right words in your opinion, or says things in a manner you would prefer, but that that does not mean you should discount what they’re saying. In my experience this is a very valuable practice because in business, as in life, not all talented and insightful people have an effective or even pleasant communication style. If you can listen beyond their style, however, you could potentially gain valuable information that helps in getting what you want.
A second key to better listening is to listen for who is speaking. This is making ourselves aware of the credentials of the person with whom we are interacting. We tend to listen more carefully to people we think are important. However, it is easy to appear authoritative; that does not necessarily make it so. Part of quality listening is to determine who is worth listening to. Would you listen seriously to what someone, who has no background in accounting, is telling you to do about refinancing a second mortgage on your home?
When you listen for who is speaking, try asking yourself the questions highlighted in the table below.
Listening for who is speaking
Is this person qualified to speak on this subject?
As a records manager, when it comes to compliance or risk management issues, you want to deal with someone who knows what they’re doing.
What underlying motives might this person have?
If you go to a surgeon for a medical opinion, he’s likely to recommend surgery.
Does this person have any prejudices or beliefs that will compromise his objectivity?
If you talk to your doctor about nutrition, he or she may have a belief that taking vitamins is a waste of time.
My next column will focus on the skills of being strategic and being credible.
Ken Neal is a certified enterprise content management practitioner (ecmp) and fellow, corporate communications for Canon Business Process Services, a leader in managed services and technology. Ken is also author of “Six Key Communications Skills for Records and Information Managers” (2014, Elsevier)