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  • Writer's pictureJenny Kosek

Listen for Better Decision Making

An executive leadership team I once served on was a passionate mix of opinionated senior leaders. We were working with a business coach on a major reorganization, and emotions throughout the process were running high. We were building the base for our company’s future, and everyone on the team had very strong opinions about what the future should look like and how we should get there.

We endured numerous day-long retreats…talking over each other, berating one another, and going in circles as we tried to clarify our challenges and generate solutions for them.

Finally, our coach intervened. To quell the commotion, we were instructed to each take a turn sharing our thoughts, concerns, and suggestions on one issue at a time – with no interruptions, commentary, or questions from the rest of the group. We went around the table, each person explaining their viewpoint while everyone else kept silent. When we got back to the first speaker, our coach asked if anyone else had additional things to say. If someone did, we went around the table in the same format, allowing those with more feedback the opportunity to speak without interruption. 

After everyone had a chance to share all they had to say, our coach worked with us to narrow down two solutions from all ideas given. Then we voted on which one to implement. And moved on.

What an incredible difference this approach made in our decision making. By allowing each person the opportunity to speak without anyone else jumping in, we efficiently heard everyone’s side of the issue and by keeping silent, had time to reflect on their comments before sharing our own. Humans can do many things, but thinking and speaking at once is not one of them. If you’re talking, you’re not thinking. If you’re talking over someone, you’re definitely not thinking. And if you’re thinking, you can take time to ensure that what you say next is thoughtful rather than driven by emotion.

This is a tough practice to implement in meetings, but it’s one we all remember from childhood – how many preschool classrooms have a talking stick that allows only the person holding it the chance to speak? This approach is exactly that, sans stick. It is admittedly formal, and especially with hot-button issues, challenging. But it ensures everyone gets a chance to speak, particularly members of the team who are not as vocal or confident voicing their opinions as others, and this is vital to making fair decisions.

I recently served jury duty and after four hours of deliberation, our jury had gotten nowhere. We had three members who hadn’t said a word; one member who was dominating the conversation and speaking over everyone else; and factions that were having their own discussions about the case without the rest of the group. After we took a break, I suggested we each go around and speak our piece. I asked everyone to keep their opinions to themselves unless it was their turn, and begged the group not to interrupt the speaker. It worked. By the end of this exercise, we had identified one major point that warranted further discussion, rather than the dozens of points we had been beating to death previously. We focused on that one issue and came to our final decision within 30 minutes. 

Too often in business, we learn strategies for speaking when we would be better served learning strategies for listening. Formalizing your meeting structure to allow for this type of idea-sharing ensures that team members will listen to one another and guarantees all members the opportunity to voice their input. When we listen, we can make better-informed decisions and foster respect within our teams, and that is the only way we can function effectively for the benefit of our organizations, employees, and customers.  


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