Communication is more than listening

Listening is only a part, albeit a very important part, of the process of communication

The political parties, the CBI, the TUC and other lobby groups claim to be doing it. Organisations as diverse as retailers, parents, consumers, doctors and broadcasters are being encouraged to do more of it. Traditionally, the personnel department has been charged with the responsibility for doing it.

What is “it”? Well of course “it” is listening. Listening seems to be all the vogue this conference season. A rediscovered art. And while I applaud this apparently “new” dedication please let us remember that listening is only one part of the process of communication. We should keep the broader perspective if we really want to understand and make progress.

A few years ago I was asked to address a personnel/employee communications audience on the topic of “we’re talking but who’s listening?” I discussed not only the issues of whether employees were getting the messages we were sending but also whether the means we were using were appropriate to that information. Were the messages understood and accepted? And did we know whether we were getting the right responses and behavioural changes we sought? Clearly listening was and remains only part of the communication chain.

Of course, there are times when we should listen first and then respond. But in most organisations we have a specific agenda. We have changes we wish to bring about, we have policies we wish to introduce and, very importantly in my view, we have leadership we wish to exercise.

I fear that the latter is being forgotten or marginalised. Employees, fellow-workers and colleagues in any organisation need to have a vision of the big picture transmitted to them by the managing director, the chief executive officer or the board. They expect and need leadership from the top so they can understand how their individual contributions and roles fit into the overall scheme of things. Without such priorities being explained you are left bewildered.

So for most organisations, and in most circumstances, listening is only a part, albeit a very important part, of the process of communication. Focus groups, employee questionnaires and consumer panels have invaluable messages and feedback to give us but they must not be allowed to substitute for properly thought out policies, strategies and initiatives.

In the personnel department we have a responsibility to consult and discuss but also to take the lead in our organisation’s approach to people issues. This should be at the heart of our organisation’s business objectives.

We must listen, certainly, but not uncritically. Having explained, listened and considered we then have to take the lead, usually by introducing the changes necessary to achieve our organisation’s objectives.

By Mike Judge, Personnel director of Peugeot

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