Ep 97: Listening Myths & How To Become A Better Listener

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Oscar Trimboli joins us from Sydney, Australia with a great interview, full of actionable tips for HR leaders. Tune in to find out what one thing organizations should do before doing employee engagement surveys. He discusses when it’s important to stop listening which is as important as when to start, and how to get continuous employee feedback (versus ad hoc listening tours). Oscar takes us through the five levels of listening and highlights the level most people struggle with; how to move from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful listener; and three things HR leaders can do to explore what’s left unsaid.  
 
Oscar Trimboli is on a quest to create 100 million Deep Listeners in the world. As a former marketing director at Vodafone and Microsoft, Oscar has always been passionate about the importance of listening to his customers and using the gift of listening to bring positive change in workplaces and the world. Indeed, if public speaking was the skill of the 20th century, Oscar believes that in the 21st century it’s time to learn how to listen.
 
Listen (above) or watch the video (below) to catch Fred's interview with Oscar Trimboli.
 

Recommended Reading and References From this Episode

Deep Listening by Oscar Trimboli


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Oscar Trimboli on HR Studio Podcast
 

Podcast Transcript

Fred Bunsa:
Welcome, everyone, to HR Studio Podcast. My name is Fred Bunsa. I'm going to be your host for today's episode and I'm thrilled to have Oscar Trimboli with us here today, all the way from Australia, tell the folks where you're, where you're hailing from.

Oscar Trimboli:
Good day. Right now, I'm in Sydney, Australia at the smoky capital of the world walking around the streets in a white shirt for the last couple of days. I feel like smoked salmon. We've got a lot of bushfires on at the moment, so a lot of people are struggling with that.

Fred Bunsa:
Awesome. Well, Oscar is a unique guest because he's on a quest. He's on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners. Today's podcast, we're going to focus on deep listening, what it is, and how do you create it. That wasn't always Oscar's primary business and professional mission. He started as a marketing director for Vodafone and Microsoft where he listened to a lot of customers over many years and then helped translate some of what he heard into leadership practices for Microsoft as well. Of late, he's focusing completely on his mission to build 100 million deep listeners. Oscar, it's wonderful to have you on HR Studio Podcast.

Oscar Trimboli:
I'm looking forward to having a great discussion and listening to your questions, Fred.

Fred Bunsa:
Great. I will be listening to you as well. Here's a copy of Oscar's book that's out now called Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words. It comes actually with a complete kit of playing cards. Maybe at the end of the podcast, Oscar, you can explain to us a little bit about that.

Fred Bunsa:
Here's what I was thinking: Deep listening, we all think we're good listeners, we all want to claim that we are good listeners, but there's a lot that goes into it, a lot of focus. Your book goes into a number of those things, the five ways of listening, but I want to think about our audience of rising HR leaders. We go through this annual process around listening to our employees, our employee engagement survey, and I'm just wondering, is there deep listening that can happen, should happen, or does happen there in employee engagement surveys?

Oscar Trimboli:
Yeah, I think annual employee engagement surveys are a great example of hearing. Deep listening is continuous. Deep listening is everyday conversations. If we wait for the end of year employee engagement survey to listen to our staff, I think we've missed the point completely. The biggest frustration I hear from employees as I do a lot of roadshows with employee engagement software providers and working with leadership teams, the difference between hearing and listening is the action you take.

Oscar Trimboli:
Fred, I'm going to be completely controversial and say stop doing employee engagement surveys until you implement what your employees asked you to implement on the last employee engagement survey and the one before that and the one before that. There's a very high likelihood that leadership teams haven't implemented the top three asks from employees on the last engagement survey.

Oscar Trimboli:
The easiest way to get people to fill in an engagement survey is not to put up balloons and cakes and send out emails reminding them of what they should do in the employee engagement survey. If you actually implement what they ask you to do, you'll be shocked. Your participation rate will go up and so will your engagement score. The difference between hearing and listening is taking action.

Oscar Trimboli:
My wish for the world when it comes to employee engagement is to make it a continuous process, not an annual process. Modern providers of engagement surveys now have tools that will engage employees on a life cycle basis. They'll engage employees in common cohorts around particular issues on a very regular basis. I know some clients are doing it even weekly, but nothing replaces those magic moments where you just bump into one of your employees and you take the time, not only to listen to what they have to say but to act on what they have to say.

Oscar Trimboli:
We've all heard the Gallup surveys about people leave their manager, not the organization. Well, the number one reason why people leave their managers if you double-click into the Gallup data, is, "They don't listen to me." That's what employees say consistently. Whether you're losing good employees or losing great customers, it's usually as a result of the lack of listening.

Fred Bunsa:
When people say, "I just don't feel like I'm being heard," does that get to the heart of what you're talking about in deep listening or is that another issue?

Oscar Trimboli:
I'd say it's a completely different issue. I mean, some of the most fundamental things around listening are managers who don't turn up to the one-on-ones or they don't return employee calls or they don't respond to emails. It's pretty basic hygiene when it comes to management. You would think that would be management 101, forget leadership 101, just engage and reply.

Oscar Trimboli:
As I've worked with market research providers and employee engagement suppliers around the world as they want to tap into what's the difference between hearing on the engagement survey and listening and taking action, deep listening is understanding what the employees haven't said, it's understanding what they mean rather than only what they say. Listening a little bit more deeply, you really understand what's behind it.
Oscar Trimboli quote on HR Studio Podcast
Oscar Trimboli:
For a lot of people, just filling in a survey form is just not going to capture the essence of what it means. You need to have ongoing, continuous dialogue to make a difference there. Deep listening, as compared to, say, active listening, active listening is trying to make sense of something for you. You're trying to understand what they're saying. Deep listening is helping the speaker, the employee, understand what they mean.

Oscar Trimboli:
For a lot of us, we don't understand this simple rule of listening. I speak at 125 words a minute, yet I can think at 900 words a minute. The likelihood the first thing out of my mouth or what I type into a keyboard the first time is what I actually mean. There's an 11% chance, Fred, that what I say is what I mean the first time. Deep listening is listening to those other 700 words that are not said. If we go and tap into that, we'll have an impact much faster when it comes to engaging employees.

Fred Bunsa:
So, active listening is about me understanding what they're trying to get to, me making sense of what they're saying. What you're proposing in your book, Deep Listening, is that what the activity could often or should often be about is helping them understand and articulate what they really mean.

Oscar Trimboli:
If done well, if you ask them, "What else? Tell me more," or just pause a new silence in that moment, in that dialogue, what you'll often find is they'll use code words like, "You know what, Fred? What we should be talking about is..." or, "Fred, actually, what matters the most to me right now is..." or they'll just draw in a deep breath. They'll sigh.

Oscar Trimboli:
"What we should be talking about is..." Now, that's easy to do in a real-time, two-way dialogue. It's a little bit harder to do in an employee engagement survey. Here's one of the tips that many anthropologists have actually explain to me. These are people who studied cultures across histories, across continents, across languages. If the employees are part of constructing the survey, meaning they understand what the questions mean because they help to construct them, a lot of employees struggle with employee engagement surveys because they don't actually know what the question means, yet if you want to increase participation rate, engage the employees in creating the questions.

Oscar Trimboli:
If you talk to anthropologists, they'll say, "From an anthropological point of view, it's completely nuts. It's crazy. It's inconsistent with the science to compare cultures or organizations," yet a lot of leaders spend a lot of time trying to benchmark themselves in employee engagement surveys as industry peers or life-size organizations or organizations on the East Coast. The science will tell you that cultures are unique. They're a construction of that group of people at that point in time dealing with that issue.

Oscar Trimboli:
To get employees to speak their mind and what they mean when it comes to collecting data in a survey, get them involved in creating the survey rather than just using a standard survey that's industry-wide with a bunch of questions that are consistent.

Fred Bunsa::
So they can actually shape the questions in language that will theoretically resonate and be clearer to the people taking the survey, their peers, their colleagues.

Oscar Trimboli:
Yeah, Fred, that's the second part of that, it's their language. As long as it make sense to them, they can respond in a way that makes sense to them as well.

Fred Bunsa:
Interesting. Is there ever a point that you need to stop listening to somebody?

Oscar Trimboli:
Yes, absolutely. A really good example of this is leadership listening tours. There comes a point where you start to hear themes consistently, no matter how many more meetings you have. It's at that point that you have to stop listening and start to take action. A conversation becomes unproductive when it's repetitive, a conversation becomes unproductive when we're not making progress. As important as active listening is, as important as deep listening is, there comes a point in time where the themes are recurring and you need to decide the action plan. That's the moment where you need to stop listening because too much listening is just as frustrating as too little listening.

Oscar Trimboli:
I can remember a time where, way back in my Microsoft days, I'm going back nearly 11 years now with this example, but we were hearing themes for the second year in a row in customer survey data. It was simply saying this, "The way you write things on the website doesn't make sense and it doesn't help us solve the problem," so our team just simply went into the contact center and started to listen to the language that the customers were using on the calls.

Oscar Trimboli:
After probably three days of listening, that was the time to stop. The patterns were really clear. We were using too much sophistimicated, complex technology language and we needed to simplify that. That was the moment to stop listening, go and work with the website people, and go and change what was written on there so people could actually use it. It is often just as important, Fred, to stop listening as it is to start listening.

Fred Bunsa:
Yes, I guess the leadership question really becomes: What is that crossover point? Where is that line that the data coming in is not providing anything new? Because you never know when a new golden nugget's coming in. I don't know. Do you have a sense of how you would advise people when there's enough listening tours done?

Oscar Trimboli:
Yeah, there are two components of that. One: You need to plan the listening deliberately, you need to get a cross-section of the organization, not just geographically or in organizational hierarchy, but also in the kinds of problems that employees are trying to solve.

Oscar Trimboli:
Fred, what you'll notice really quickly is no matter where you go, and I would typically say a 90-day period for the kinds of organizations that are over a thousand employees, a 90-day period is the kind of period you're going to have to get to to start to hear the issues and start to pattern match. After 90 days is a very high likelihood that the patterns will become consistent and the outliers won't be there as much.

Oscar Trimboli:
Again, I want to make the point is listening tours, to me, are a complete waste of time unless they're continuous. Too many organizational leaders do the listening tour when they start in the organization or when they're about to propose a change. Skillful leaders always have their ear to the ground, their listening tour is consistent.

Oscar Trimboli:
A listening tour doesn't have to be you're physically getting on the plane all the time. A listening tour can be something as simple as using an internal enterprise-based social media site to pose questions to the organization. A good leader will pose questions in those contexts. You're getting continuous input.

Oscar Trimboli:
Some world-class leaders who operate in organizations of multi tens of thousands, it's very difficult for them to do physical listening tours consistently, but using internal social media as an example, they get eight times more engagement on a post that poses a question about a problem the leader is struggling with and asking the organization to help solve that. It also gives permission for all the employees that engage on that site to pose their own questions and what they're struggling with as well. So, listening-

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah, it makes it okay to ask questions and not just have answers as a leader.

Oscar Trimboli:
... Yeah, and I think for a lot of leaders, that relieves the pressure of being the person who knows it all and has all the answers because they don't. I'll often say when I lead workshops, the answer's in this room more likely than it is coming from me. Great leaders are skillful in asking the right kinds of questions.

Oscar Trimboli:
I remember, there was a big telecommunications company that this study had been done on on how they use internal social media. Somebody posed a question about how do we give credits to existing customers who've had a problem with international roaming and everybody put up a bunch of responses and somebody simply said, "The leadership team would never allow it." The CEO came in on that post and said, "Well, I'm on the leadership team. Have you asked me if I'd allow it?" That's a beautiful example of listening to what's unsaid in your organization through these great tools that help you listen at scale.

Fred Bunsa:
Can you briefly take us through the five levels of listening?

Oscar Trimboli:
The five levels of listening are: listening to yourself, listening to the content, listening for the context, listening for what's unsaid, and ultimately, listening for meaning. That's helping them make sense of what they mean rather than you figuring out what that means.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Oscar Trimboli:
For most of us, we struggle at level one, listening to ourselves, because we turn up to conversations with the last meeting in our head or the next meeting in our head or something we're struggling with at home.

Oscar Trimboli:
In our database, Fred, are 1,410 listeners. We know 86% of people have said consistently, "I'd love to get to level two, but right now, I'm completely distracted at level one. I'm distracted by cell phones, I'm distracted by laptops." If there's three simple things I'd say to everybody if you want to move from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful listener, one: Remove distractions. Two: Notice your breathing. Three: Drink a glass of water in every conversation. Those three simple tips help double your listening productivity straight away.

Oscar Trimboli:
But most of us are addicted to our cell phones, we're addicted to our laptops or our iPads. If I could get the world just to focus on one thing, just turn the notifications off if you're addicted, and then slowly move into flight mode and then eventually, switch that device off.

Oscar Trimboli:
There was a leader I worked with at Microsoft, it was 2012. He had flown from Seattle to Sydney, effectively a 24-hour flight. I was hosting a meeting with him and 20 other CEOs of technology companies and Peter ran a business that was about $5 billion. He was a pretty busy guy. He was responsible for about 25,000 employees. He sat at the front of the room. I'd introduced the purpose of the meeting and then he stood up and I thought, "Oh, no. Where's this going?"

Oscar Trimboli:
Peter stood up, he turned to everybody in the room, he apologized. He said, "Look, the most important thing I can give you right now is my attention." With that, he switched his cell phone off, he walked to the corner of the room, put it in his bag, and came back to the table. Now, Fred, what do you think happened with the other 20 people in the room in that moment?

Fred Bunsa:
They thought about, "Shoot. Am I going to need to do the same thing?"

Oscar Trimboli:
Yeah. What was interesting, 17 people switched their phones off and put them in their bags and three people probably put them into flight mode. But in role modeling, giving attention in that moment, that meeting was completely transformational. In fact, those 20 CEOs have all gone on to different companies, but I know they meet every six months. Most times, there's six or seven of them, and they all do what they call "the Peter thing" and they start the meeting by switching off the cell phones and saying, "The most important thing we can do right now is give each other our full attention."

Oscar Trimboli:
It's those basic things that a lot of us just miss because we think we're too important. Fine, if you run an organization that's bigger than a couple of billion dollars, and you run an organization bigger than 10,000 employees, sure, use your cell phone. I don't understand what pressures you're under, but if Peter could do that traveling halfway around the world on a different time zone, I'm sure the rest of us mere mortals probably could as well.

Fred Bunsa:
One of the things that you say in the book is that in this current moment of life that we're in right now, that listening matters in leadership more than ever. I think about our audience of HR leaders and all kinds of leaders, actually, but HR leaders who are often coaching other leaders. I'm just wondering, how would you coach these coaches about communicating how important it is to the C-suite leaders to listen and how do they actually help them listen more deeply?

Oscar Trimboli:
I think going into a conversation and telling a leader that listening matters completely lacks empathy for what's their world problem, what they're all about. These people are struggling with really big commercial issues. They're struggling with declining revenues or declining market share or they're struggling with intensity in competition or they're struggling with great talent leaving the organization, or they're struggling with projects running behind schedule or they're struggling trying to coordinate a global supply chain.

Oscar Trimboli:
I think if we put listening in the context of commercial impact, you'll get the attention of these leaders much more than walking in and saying, "Hey, Fred. Today, we're going to focus on listening." If you want to see someone disconnect really quickly from a conversation, start with that phrase because they are going to go, "You don't get me, you don't get my problems."

Oscar Trimboli:
I think for a lot of us that provide support services to these leaders, it's really critical to enter the conversation through their problem sets. Most commercial problems - losing market share is an inability for us to listen to our customers or our prospects, losing great employees, an inability for us to listen to what they say. Projects that are running over-scheduled, projects that are running over budget, they all are a result of lack of listening.

Oscar Trimboli:
Imagine we are on the other side of that conversation, though, Fred. There will be one thing that I would say is helping leaders to understand that the first thing people say, there's an 11% chance of what they say is what they mean. The one tip I would say if you're supporting leaders in this context, help them with this question and the question is, pick either of these three things, whenever somebody has described a problem, simply say, "Tell me more."

Fred Bunsa:a:
Tell me more.

Oscar Trimboli:
Or ask them to say, "What else?"

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Oscar Trimboli:
Or simply pause. Be comfortable with the silence. In the East, silence is a sign of wisdom, it's a sign of authority. In that pause or in that, "What else?" or in that, "Tell me more," moment, the counterpart that the leader was working with, they'll become comfortable in saying, "You know what? Actually, what I should be talking to you is about this." That's where the real conversation is.

Oscar Trimboli:
If all leaders did was say, "Tell me more," or, "What else?", that would double their listening productivity immediately, but more importantly, employees would feel much more comfortable going to the heart of the issue much faster than waffling along with lovely, elongated stories.

Oscar Trimboli::
The biggest fear of the leaders and the ones I've worked with is the fear they're being told what they think they need to be told rather than truth and the quickest way for leaders to get to the truth and really listen deeply is simply explore "What else?", "Tell me more?", or just pause for 10 seconds, and you'll see silence do the heavy lifting for you.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah, I love that phrase: "Let silence do the heavy lifting in that."

Oscar Trimboli:
That's not my phrase. That's a phrase by Judith Glaser, a wonderful leadership consultant in this space and written a brilliant book called Fierce Conversations, definitely one I'd recommend.

Fred Bunsa:
I know it well. It's a great book. We just have a few minutes left. Tell us about the cards that come along with your book, Deep Listening cards: Impact Beyond Words, an application or two that you think could be helpful there?

Oscar Trimboli:
Yeah, the cards have been used by school principals, they've been used in prisons, they've been used by police forces, they've been used in financial services. Some people just use one card a week. There are 50 cards organized into the five levels of listening, 10 cards at each level.

Oscar Trimboli:
Some leaders simply use one card a week and give it to a buddy and say, "I'm working on this in my listening this week. Can you help me with it?" Some people will use it in team meetings and say, "Hey, the theme for this month, we're going to listen more contextually than we have at the content." An example of this is a sales organization I was working with were using listening at the context level and that helped them breakthrough on a couple of sales that they were blocked on and for three of them, they made progress, but more importantly for two of them, they decided they weren't the right organization to solve this problem and moved on. They recommended another supplier to that organization, which actually increased trust and as a result, the customer said, "We've got another problem over here, might you be able to help us with that?"

Oscar Trimboli:
Sometimes, just simply using the cards in sales meetings. We've had it used in product engineering meetings where people are trying to listen for the unspoken needs of the customer, so there are many applications, but they're three that are the most common uses, I would say.

Fred Bunsa:
Awesome. Well, Oscar, we're going to need to wrap up. Any final thoughts from you on advice for our audience of rising HR leaders? What would you like resounding in their ears at the end of the podcast here?

Oscar Trimboli:
Just remember that 125/900 rule. We think 900 words, we speak at 125 words. Just go and explore what's unsaid when it comes to your leaders. But for you individually as practitioners, number one: Remove the distractions. Number two: The deeper you breathe, the deeper you listen. Just take three deep breaths before you go into any meeting and if you're struggling with a topic, just take a deep breath in that moment. Then water, a glass of water in every meeting. A hydrated brain is a listening brain. The more blood sugars you can get to the brain, the simpler listening will be. We unpack a lot of these at listeningmyths.com, Fred, so if people want more information, that's the best place to get it.

Fred Bunsa:
Awesome. Well, Oscar, thank you so much for your time today. For those of you who are not subscribers already to HR Studio Podcast, you can go to hrstudiopodcast.com and get the show notes for this episode. You can get all the access to Oscar and his website and all his social handles. We'll have those all listed there. Oscar, again, thank you so much for your time today. This has been really helpful. Such a basic topic, but so fundamentally important to get right, and we really appreciate the research and the guidance you've given us.

Oscar Trimboli:
Thanks for listening.

Fred Bunsa:
Thanks for listening. All right, take care.

 

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Date: 
Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 8:00am
Industry: 
Consulting
Host: 
Fred Bunsa
Guest: 
Oscar Trimboli
Type: 
HR Studio Podcast