Economy of Expression

Economy of Expression ②

Economy of Expression is a four-part series about the role of communication in business. In Part II, we discuss with Eleanor Scott, artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant, about listening, and why being an 'authentic listener' can help drive better business outcomes.


CHRISLet's do a quick recap on our first discussion about the Economy of Expression

ELEANOR: Absolutely. In our first discussion we introduced the concept of ‘economy of expression’, and how being an effective communicator is vital in business today. We talked about what business can learn from the Arts and about how communication is contributing to the current wave of technology-driven change.

I’m excited to talk about listening and what being better listeners can do for business. Put simply, listening is the foundation of great communication.

CHRIS: To start off, can you describe what listening means to you?

ELEANOR: There are a number of elements of listening that make up what I like to call ‘authentic listening’. Authentic listening is a term I coined to describe what we aim to do as actors and performers, and is a common skill among the most gifted artists.

If an artist, of any kind, isn’t truly listening, then they can’t hope to create the experience or emotion their art demands. You know it when you see it. Just think about the last time you saw some bad acting; it’s just not believable. Authentic listening requires that someone be present in the moment. They need to be self-aware and have a willingness to be engaged in the conversation. And I think beyond engagement, authentic listeners are listening to understand. There is a humility to authentic listening where there is an acknowledgement that ‘hey, I could actually learn something here’.

CHRIS: What mistakes do you see people in the business world make when it comes to listening?

ELEANOR: When I’m working with businesses, I have a lot of different types of interactions with people. I do education sessions, improvisation sessions, 1:1 coaching as well as workshop and meeting facilitation training. What I notice in almost all scenarios is that people find it incredibly difficult to be present. The are telltale signs – open laptops, phones on the table and closed body language. I can instantly tell whether people are going to be truly listening in the session.

I find that many people operate under a misconception that they can be present, listen and learn, whilst checking and responding to emails. They can’t see that they really aren’t listening at all. For me, it’s linked to self-awareness. I’d love to see people own it more and acknowledge that they aren’t listening rather than pretending that they are. I’d much prefer someone to say ‘sorry, I wasn’t listening’ and then give me their undivided attention.

CHRIS: Why do you think, in business, people have such a hard time listening?

ELEANOR: I see a number of contributing factors at play. There is an expectation for people to be constantly connected. With so many ways to stay connected, it’s hard for people to focus on any one thing at a time. They are time poor and default to listening for keywords that peak their interest for a minute and then go back to whatever it was they were doing before.

This expectation to be ‘always connected and always on’ results in people not being open to listening. Being open to listening, to new ideas, requires focus and attentiveness. If people feel overwhelmed by how busy they are already, then it’s understandable that they aren’t going to be receptive to new ideas. Listening is hard. Interpreting new ideas is hard. Even if those ideas have the potential to deliver a better outcome, it’s often easier just to follow through on a preconceived idea or solution rather than making the effort to authentically listen to a new one.

The other thing I see in business, is that it is the content itself that causes people, who may want to truly listen, to zone out. For me, as soon as someone mentions ‘digital transformation’ or ‘solutioning’, I’m done, they’ve lost my attention and desire to listen. If we talk in buzzwords it’s totally reasonable that our audience switches off. It may, in fact, be the case that people can effectively multi-task because they know what is being said is vanilla, it doesn’t actually mean that much. If what we said was more economical, focused, meaningful and devoid of buzz, then maybe we would have an easier time getting people to authentically listen to us.

CHRIS: What are some of the tricks of the Arts trade that you employ when working with business?

ELEANOR: The rules for authentic listening that guide actors and performers are the same rules that can be employed in business.

  1. Say the first thing that comes into your head. When you say the first thing that comes into your head it means that you trust the people in the room. It also means that what you communicate is true as opposed to something scripted.
  2. You are not the most important person in the room. In theater, the most important person on stage, is not you, it’s your scene partner. Your job is to make them look spectacular and to do that, you have to be present, you have to demonstrate self-awareness and you have to be able to empathize.
  3. Always say ‘yes, and’. When you ask someone on stage a question or make a suggestion, that is called giving an ‘offer’, and what this does is create openness by encouraging a dialogue that requires all participants to really listen to each other.

I also teach some theatre warm up techniques that focus on breathing. It’s so simple, yet so effective. If, as the person leading the meeting, you feel that the energy in the room is off, all you need to do is take a couple of deep breaths, and the room will do that same. You can completely ground the room and change the energy with breathing.

To start my sessions in the corporate classroom I often ask the participants what they need to bring themselves into the room. By doing that I’m trying to create a scenario that enables everyone in the room to listen. Removing devices is an obvious technique but I also get people to use pen and paper. The results from a simple change like that can be pretty mind blowing. People sit in the room and say ‘my hand hurts!’ but they also comment that they feel like the conversation is more authentic and free of distraction.

CHRIS: A lot of what we've talked about relates to scenarios where people are together in the same room. With so many different ways to communicate in business today, how can people authentically listen when the interactions are digital?

ELEANOR: There are so many variables associated with digital interactions – technology, environment, culture, timezones, language etc. The biggest issue I see is that people don’t think of these as meetings. As a performer, I feel like I am wearing a straight jacket when I’m on a conference call, which has made me realize just how hard they are from a communication standpoint. 80-90% of communication is non-verbal so even if everything works, digital interactions are hard because we are blind.

Let’s take conference calls for example. They are so often a nightmare. The line is bad, you don’t know who is on the call, people join late, some people are together, some are by themselves. There are so many ‘x-factors’ that can make a conference call a terrible communication experience.

Like any other interaction in business, to make it effective, you have to authentically listen. To do this, you have to treat it like you would a face-to-face meeting, with the same levels of preparation, mindfulness and focus, but with the added understanding that it is actually harder to effectively communicate than a face to face. I created a class called ‘conference calls are meetings too’, specifically to address these challenges. We know remote working is growing in popularity, and this growth is only going to increase the need for effective communication skills.

We’ve all been on those calls where someone’s dog is barking in the background, ordering a coffee or even on the back of a motorbike (true story!) You wouldn’t leave a face-to-face meeting to order a coffee, so you shouldn’t order coffee on a conference call either!

CHRIS: Let's wrap this one up and talk about what's next.

ELEANOR: For me, authentic listening forms the foundation of great communication. The effectiveness of our verbal, non-verbal and written communication hinges on our ability and desire to actually listen as opposed to going through the motions of listening.

There is more to be said about verbal and non-verbal communication. Being articulate and concise is so important as a performer and there are a number of lessons the business world can learn from the Arts. But you’ll have to wait for the next discussion to find out what they are!


Interview with Eleanor Scott, Artist, educator and Silicon Valley communication consultant by Chris Watt, SVP of Corporate Strategy for Tigerspike