Are you listening? The power of dialogue

Most companies recognise the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Forward-thinking organisations around the world have invested heavily in “D&I” initiatives, with varying degrees of success. That’s because D&I is still being treated as a box-ticking exercise, rather than part of an organisation’s deeply ingrained DNA which ultimately cultivates the culture in which diversity can thrive.

Quite often assumptions are made. Decisions and solutions occur hastily to address a perceived ‘problem’ or ‘tension’ area without really understanding what is driving the organisation’s culture and inherent systemic issues.

Over one-third of employees worldwide think their company doesn’t listen to their ideas for improving the business, and 71% of US professionals don’t believe their employer acts in their best interest. These are some shocking statistics.

A simple way to start understanding your culture is to get better at listening and change the way you communicate. There’s a clear link between organisations that actively listen and engage their people and those that have successfully created a high performing culture of inclusion.

Make time to listen

Have you heard the term the “illusion of inclusion”? It's particularly poignant. Leaders relish the idea of including others in the process - whether that’s a decision or creative brainstorm – but don’t really want to take the time or make the effort to ensure it happens.

What happens, in reality, is that people are not really listened to and they know it! This only adds to their disengagement and lack of regard for those above. It emphasises a “checking the box” culture when an opinion is being asked for, as opposed to feeling that someone is genuinely interested in hearing different perspectives.

If you do one thing today, make time to listen.

Listen like a lawyer

You may think that you are a good listener but determining this is not up to you. It is recognised by the person doing the talking. Good listening requires ongoing practice and development, a skill that lawyers have perfected.

They say the average person remembers between 25% and 50% of what they hear. Not because of poor memory or limited brain capacity, but because, in generalised terms, people don’t listen well – less actively or inclusively. When people don’t listen carefully enough assumptions are made as to what was meant, and too often the assumptions are wrong because of implicit biases.

To unlock the power of diversity means learning to actively listen – the way you would listen for your lottery numbers, especially after noting you have 4 of them already and are in for the millions! It requires people to notice and question their own assumptions and recognise inherent assumptions as myths. We need to listen closely enough to not only hear the words but to grasp their true meaning. By doing so, people feel valued, understood and that their opinion counts, which inevitably enhances productivity and ensures that communication flows two-ways, without conflict or misunderstanding.

Give up the need to have all the answers

It’s human nature to want to solve that ‘complex problem’ or have that ‘brilliant idea’ that puts you on a pedestal. We naturally crave recognition and revel in it. But acting in others’ best interests should not be done solo. It requires deeper understanding of needs and goals and that it’s not possible for leaders to know everything on their own.

Neurodiversity - where neurological differences are recognised and respected as any other human variation - is the new frontier of D&I. Leaders simply will not make the best and most informed decisions without engaging people and learning along the way. Leaders must shift their focus outward, moving beyond ‘being right’ or having the answers, to focusing on the people it affects and who it matters to. Collectively, by soliciting diversity of thought you will find the best solutions.

Model the behaviour

Many organisations seeking a more inclusive culture have the ideology in mind and the well-written values. Yet quite frequently everyday behaviours, rife throughout an organisation’s hierarchy, tell a contradictory story.

Organisations should hold up the mirror and understand whether their current behaviours are reflecting their desired outcome. Having high levels of integrity in what you do and say, means that people will feel their organisation and their leadership is trustworthy, ethical and practises what they preach. This is critical to people feeling included and creates the example culture where individuals are open to sharing their honest perspectives and lived experiences -  and that those perspectives and ideas are genuinely being listened to and incorporated into the business to create a more prosperous future.

Move from monologue to dialogue

Most of the time what we think of as dialogue is actually monologue and crosstalk. This highlights an inability or lack of understanding in how to contribute to constructive and authentic conversations. We simply haven’t learned the skills of actively listening – to the points above – and of engaging in meaningful exchanges.

A true dialogue is a form of discussion aimed at harnessing lived experiences, mutual insight and common purpose in a trusted environment without judgement. They raise awareness and understanding of inclusive behaviours, encouraging deeper conversations which drive a greater understanding and empathy of similarities and differences, unconscious biases and how the working environment and cultures impact people within the organisation.

In order to overcome differences, we should build meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging, find solutions, and set directions together – everyone can feel empowered to speak up, confident that their voice will be heard, and only then do we begin to think together as leaders, as groups, as teams, and as communities.

Teach and learn opportunity

To build a truly inclusive culture it is critical to involve the people who work in the organisation to share their perspectives on important issues. Because when we understand each other, we can all feel and perform at our best.

We all need to be mindful of what it takes to speak up, to share perspectives and lived experiences. These experiences, perspectives and even language used hold different weight for different individuals and groups of people. These differences are an important distinction and present an opportunity to ‘teach’ and ‘learn’. But most important of all, they need to be heard and acted upon.

Be courageous

If you’re having courageous conversations, it normally means you’re doing the right thing. Granted, they are not always easy, but recognising and accepting the uncomfortable feeling is the first place to start.

Courageous conversations inspire new perspectives to be voiced and heard. They create the foundations for a better working culture and more self-awareness. It’s what accepting diversity and embracing inclusion is all about.

Everyone has a voice and it should be heard, so start making time to actively listen, now. True inclusion is the collective effort that concerns, benefits and involves everyone. When done well, the benefits can be extraordinary.