Confirming What You Thought You Said…Effective Listening

Effective ListeningHave you ever heard of this “story game” to get a party going?  Here’s how it works.  Write a short paragraph with a story, and choose 4 people.  Have them line up side by side, and give the first person the story to read (but don’t show it to the other three).  Then ask the first person to give the written version back to you, and whisper it to the 2nd person in line.  Have the 2nd person then whisper it to the 3rd person, and then the 3rd whispers to the last person.  Ask the 4th person in line to recite the story out loud.  Then read the written version, and compare the two stories. It’s a great lesson in Effective Listening!
Having some personal experience here, I can safely say the game gets a whole lot better if you play it after a beverage or two…..but the fact is you’ll find that no matter when in the evening you try it, the 4th person’s version of the story will usually be quite different than the original.  And everyone should get a laugh or two from the comparison!

Why the difference in story versions as it passes from one person to another?  The key reason is we typically do not listen well.  We don’t focus on what the other person is saying.  And if there is little or no body language to go with the words, listening goes from bad to worse (that’s why the game is played with the 4 players side by side, whispering instead of speaking face to face).

As leaders, we know this is the world we live in more often than not.  As John Wayne once said to a fellow cowboy, “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”  We all need work on this critical leadership skill, to be able to listen effectively.

There are a number of tools we can put in our listening toolbox and start using to improve our leadership skills, but one that stands out among the leaders we have worked with is the confirmation, or backbrief. Basically, it’s a process of checking with the recipients to insure they heard what you think you said.

Here are some ways you can bring the backbrief to life:

  1. Make it an agenda item for every meeting.  Each attendee closes his or her part of the meeting by backbriefing what they heard, particularly the instructions and guidance that specifically applies to them.
  2. Assign backbrief training as a key leader task for your senior team.  Ensure they understand that you’re going to be out checking 2 and 3 levels down in the organization regularly to see if junior leaders understand and are using the backbrief as a confirmation tool – to check that instructions are clearly understood.
  3. When you conduct an After Action Review after every major project or event, ensure the backbrief is part of the review – to determine if it was actually used, and how well follow-ups were done if there appeared to be any confusion.  Use that examination as part of the learning process, so your backbriefs consistently get better.

The backbrief has to become habit if it’s going to work effectively.  You can’t just use it for a week or so and expect everyone gets it.  If you teach your leaders that every set of instructions is incomplete until the recipients indicate they understand them via a backbrief, it will become the standard of what right looks like.

You’ll be amazed how much better your listening skills become when you work with your team to confirm what they heard you say.  They’ll really begin to understand why they have to focus, to be in the moment and listen to you.  And you’ll be a lot more deliberate in what you’re telling them must be done, and listening to their backbriefs.  Everyone wins.  Enjoy the journey!