Language Matters: The Importance of Listening
We have only to observe the communication of a newborn as it becomes a toddler, child, teenager and adult to witness the evolution and importance of language and the ability to communicate. Newborns quickly learn the results from a whimper, which can quickly escalate to tears; toddlers often take it up a notch to full-blown writhing-on-the-floor tantrums; children learn the art of whining and pleading; teenagers, the effect of one-word responses or an eye roll; the communication palette of an adult ranges from a single, silently-arched eyebrow to direct and compassionately-inflected dialogue.
Then there is the often-neglected listening side of language. Just as we can show empathy by mirroring the physical stance or gestures of the speaker, so too can we show attention by using the words of the speaker to let them know we have heard them. Part of listening is allowing the other person to speak and complete their thoughts. How often have you been in a conversation where you absolutely knew where the conversation was headed, even to the point of predicting the exact words to be used? How often did that lead you to interrupt the speaker, thereby depriving them of the complete processing and expression of their thoughts?
A crucial premise of conversation is that it requires effort from both the speaker and the listener. As listener, the more we push away our own thoughts to better allow in the words of the speaker, even remaining calm and silent through a pause, the more surprised both speaker and listener may be at the ideas that surface. Conversation can then transition from knowing what the speaker will say and planning a response to an open, receptive mind that listens with curiosity rather than assumption.
In some ways, the art of listening can be compared to an invitation for bids (IFB) and a request for proposals (RFP). With an IFB, we know the requirements and are looking (or listening) only for the best price. With an RFP, we may know what we wish to achieve, but we may not know how to get there. We are curious to know the proposer’s approach.
Context, i.e., the environment, situation, associated words and concepts, or experience, give meaning to words. This meaning contributes to communication. When the art of listening is integrated into communication, innovation is possible.
We know from homonyms, words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings, that context can determine the meaning of a word. “Table” can mean a stable piece of furniture or a motion to set aside an agenda item. There are also homographs, words with the same spelling but a different sound and meaning. Sow is what farmers do with seeds in the spring or it’s the mother of piglets. Within your entity, SOW may mean Scope of Work or Statement of Work. “Bid” may mean a solicitation, response, or the action taken to issue a solicitation or offer a response. Without context and a history of how the terms are used, confusion can result. Just as the vocabulary of a child grows as they are exposed to new words and concepts, so, too, does the language of procurement expand as the profession incorporates new methods, skills, and processes. With each new word such as best value, the concept and processes associated with the term are added to the knowledge of the practitioner and the profession. As entities and their stakeholders become more global and varied, the importance of accurate and consistent use of a professional language increases.
The success of a procurement relies in great part on communication. When we truly listen, we acknowledge the speaker and give them the gift of our attention. Ideally, we create a conducive, relaxed environment for the speaker. When conducting market research or hosting demonstrations, we want to listen carefully to learn what’s available and how the supplier sees their product as addressing entity needs. Specifications, too, will more accurately reflect requirements when we offer our customer, the end user, sufficient time, space, and attention to tell us how a product is used or what they must achieve to support their mission. Clarifying questions should be asked when necessary, but in a way that minimizes interruptions and contributes to the speaker’s ease. How many times have protests been avoided just by the procurement professional listening and letting the supplier vent? Experiment with turning assumptions into questions. When you find yourself thinking, “I know where she’s going with this,” turn that thought into “I wonder where she’s going with this.”
Assumptions and expectations define many of our conversations. We come to a meeting with an agenda of prepared items and an assumption of who will speak and who will not. The words we use trigger expectations. If we refer to “bid,” the listener conjures up low price and known requirements while proposals may suggest best value. When we leave assumptions and expectations behind, innovation can emerge. Try it. You may be surprised.
Lisa Premo, NIGP global practices manager, collaborates with public procurement practitioners and academics to conduct research and develop useful guidance on public procurement topics.