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Stakeholder engagement: getting to the heart of the matter with empathetic listening

Behavior isn't always rational. That's why we need to be empathetic.

In the first of a four-part series, we explore some essential skills and mindsets you and your team can build trusted partnerships with your stakeholders.

For the corporate sustainability leader, stakeholders can be a goldmine of valuable information, resources and support. They can help you manage issues before they blow up and find innovative ways to solve the most complex of challenges. Stakeholder engagement strategy is often reduced to a clinical process of mapping and assessing and project managing. But within that process are real live people, and dealing with us humans can be messy.

"It’s not what you hear by listening that’s important; it’s what you say by listening that’s important." — Thomas Friedman

I was talking to Joe, a procurement guy at my client Mary’s company. Mary, head of CSR, was developing a new sourcing policy, which she hoped would make her company a sustainability leader in her sector. She asked me to facilitate a meeting with a group of external stakeholders to discuss the draft policy and she invited Joe and some other colleagues in to answer any questions. I liked Mary a lot: she was visionary, bold and sincere. I was rooting for her all the way.

I liked Joe, too — he was a real team player. During the meeting, he was completely engaged, affable and answered all the questions the right way. This was about leadership, doing the right thing, meeting the customers’ expectations. The group was duly impressed, singing the praises of the policy. Success. We took a break.

But how had we gotten so far down the path without uncovering this issue?
Joe grabbed a coffee and went off by himself to a couch in the corner of the lobby corridor. I joined him. We got to chatting about the policy. He repeated a lot of the things he said in the meeting:  we were on the right track, doing the right thing; the company was showing great leadership. As he talked, he slunk down more and more into the couch, his eyelids grew heavy, his shoulders slumped.

"You look tired, Joe," I said. "Is everything OK?"

"I’m fine, thanks, just have a lot on my plate," he responded, sitting up a little straighter.

We got to chatting about his thousands of work responsibilities, how he had just lost some staff, how he was not spending enough time at home with his young children as a result. As we talked, his whole body seemed to loosen up, his once impassive face had become quite animated.

"And how will this new policy impact you?" I asked him, truly curious. I really had no idea.

He let out a deep sigh. This once mild-mannered, company man leaned in close to me, his voice now loud and full of energy, his hands perpetually moving. He told me about how onerous the procurement process they were using was, how much extra paperwork he had to fill out, all the signoffs and approvals he had to get which he didn’t think really affected the results. He was afraid that if even one more requirement was added, as the policy proposed, he and the process would break. He sounded frustrated, almost angry, although he never said anything disloyal about the company or Mary.

"Can you walk me through the steps you have to take now? I’d love to learn more about the details," I said.

As he explained the procurement journey, we brainstormed together why certain things were done certain ways, and he came up with some excellent ideas on how to make it easier and more efficient.  Coffee break was almost over, and he was sitting up straight, lively, smiling. He had revealed a big potential pitfall to the strategy and had come up with lots of great solutions, in less than 30 minutes.

But how had we gotten so far down the path without uncovering this issue? It’s not like Mary didn’t ask for his input; she had circulated the draft to all the key internal stakeholders and asked for feedback before the meeting, just as the stakeholder engagement process required. She met with her colleagues and addressed all the concerns raised, reiterating how well the new policy would position their company in the marketplace. So what went wrong? It appears that, for whatever reason, no one brought the procurement issue to her attention, at least not in so many words.

Empathetic listening helps us discover what our user or stakeholder sometimes does not even consciously know.
In organizational coaching, we use empathetic listening to go beyond the words to find the meaning. Listening like this, according to Co-Active Coaching, includes "everything you can observe with your senses: what you see, hear, smell and feel — the tactile as well as the emotional sensations." It requires us to be fully present, to be very curious about the other person and to trust our intuitions.

Some of the lucky few are naturally good at empathetic listening, but most of us, including myself, must learn this skill and consciously practice it over and over to get good. Our tendency, when we listen, is to focus internally on our own thoughts and judgments. Sometimes we are defensive. Other times we hear the literal words but do not grasp, or understand the value of, the emotion underlying the words.  

With design thinking, a human-centric design approach sometimes used to create social impact collaborations, we might apply tools such as ethnographic interviews and 360 Empathy to identify the unmet, unarticulated needs of the user. This helps us co-create the best solutions. Such an approach requires empathetic listening to surface the deeper issues and delve into the non-rational side of human behavior. Empathetic listening helps us discover what our user or stakeholder sometimes does not even consciously know about their own needs or wants.

Mary’s approach, commonly used by the most well-intentioned, smartest of people, did not allow her stakeholders to express their underlying needs. As a result, she would have had a lot of problems executing it. Joe’s valuable insights helped us reconfigure the policy and implementation process to get the best outcomes. Empathetic listening gets us to the heart of the matter.

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