Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt…

I love this Mark Twain quote. I regularly cite it and often think about it when facilitating sessions or supporting groups to change. Denial can be a significant blocker to progress, especially when facing into negative behaviours or cultures. One of the hardest things to accept is that the culture in your organisation may be a dark, bleak and negative place for some of your colleagues. If this is the case (and it is more than likely that it is) we must accept that uncomfortable truth and ask ourselves what can we do about it?

At the heart of my philosophy and approach to building inclusive cultures are three words. Listen. Hear. Respond.

Listening is an underrated skill. Often when we think we are listening we can actually be waiting for our turn to speak. When we are really listening we are not only tuning into the words but the body language, the tone and the emotion of what is being shared.

The literal definition of a hearing “is an opportunity to state one’s case” for example “I think I had a fair hearing“. This for me is the deep thinking that takes place after we have listened. Based on what we have heard how has that altered or changed our perception of the world? How has it influenced out thinking? Hearing should lead us to recognise and acknowledge the truth of someone else’s lived experience.

So we have listened and we have heard but what do we do with that information, that alternative perspective? I have deliberately chosen the word respond. This is because any action we take should be directly related to what we have heard. It is also critical that when we respond we do so with the groups we are seeking to support rather than do to them. This all seems simple enough but this is where denial threatens to rear it’s ugly head. Before we can even begin to listen, hear and respond we must acknowledge that we have a problem. That is easier said than done, especially when the culture and environment has always been supportive, kind or respectful to you personally. Once we have been able to get over that hurdle we can then commit to doing something about it.

So returning to those three words: listen, hear, respond. The next most important thing is how we think about them. This is not a linear process. The work we need to do is ongoing and therefore it is critical that we think about these three words as a cycle and also broaden our understanding of how we listen.

Listening is not just about dialogue, though this is important. It is also about ‘listening’ to what our data is telling us OR as importantly not telling us. We need to interrogate all of the insight we have available from our engagement survey scores to sickness absence to recruitment to progression. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips the challenge for all of us is asking the right questions of that data. As we progress around the cycle our approach to listening will let us know how effective our response has been in tackling an issue or a problem.

But don’t just take my word for it. This TED in conversation with Rosalind Brewer (Starbucks CEO) discusses how active listening resides at the heart of their diversity and inclusion at work plans.

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