How many times has something like this happened to you? A homeowner is frustrated because of something completely beyond Joe Manager's control, like the street light bulb flickering right outside her bedroom window. She sends an email to service requests at XYZ Management. She gets an automated response back thanking her for her request and stating how important her needs are to them. Joe Manager receives the request, knows this function needs to be handled by the city, and forwards the email request over to the city maintenance department, who usually deal with his requests within 2 or 3 days. Then he shoots an email over to the homeowner saying that it will be handled soon. At this point it is hurry up and wait, right? So the manager forgets about it and moves on to other things.
Except the homeowner hasn't forgotten, because that flickering light is keeping her up nights, and after two weeks of it happening, she is now sleep deprived and grumpy to boot. Following up with the manager just rewards her with a 'passing of the buck' to the city, and she gets frustrated, and feels like nobody is listening to her needs, and nobody cares about her welfare. So who does she hold responsible for the failure? The city who's responsible to change the bulb, or the manager who she asked to take care of it? Well, the manager, of course.
And since he did not follow up with the city after a day or two, or follow up with her to see if everything was taken care of, she's going to take out all her frustrations on the manager. Next thing you know she is trashing his name all around the community, and at the annual meeting, and XYZ Management has a one-star review on Yelp and a 'do not call' rating on Angie's list.
The worst part is that at any point in this scenario, the manager could have helped alleviate the homeowner's frustration through simple communications. For example, a quick call early on to the homeowner letting her know that this is a project for the city and giving her the city's service ticket number; checking in with the owner to insure that things are handled satisfactorily; Following up with the city to see exactly when someone will be coming out (and to make sure they got the request.)
Better Communication starts with Listening
Sadly, this story is not just fiction. One of the things we hear all the time in community management is that better communication creates healthier communities. I believe that is true, but not just ANY kind of communication. In today's age of automated responses, text messages and software generated communications, it is the personal touch in communication that makes a difference. And that personal touch begins by LISTENING.
Author and Sound expert Julian Treasure gave a TED talk on the premise that we are losing our ability to listen. Studies have shown that people today spend 60% of their time listening, but retain only 25% of what they hear. This lack of retention can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. (In my opinion, this applies to any kind of conversation, not strictly face to face. You need to listen as much to what one says in an email or on the phone as you do in a face to face conversation.) Among a number of other great tips (see the video below), Julian highlights a simple acronym that you can practice to help you become a better active listener. The acronym is RASA and it stands for Receive, Appreciate, Summarize and Ask.
First, one has to make an active effort to be present and receptive when listening to another person. To actually pay attention, not tune out while they are talking. One aspect of this is not to interrupt the speaker. Interrupting before they have had an opportunity to finish leaves them frustrated, due to an unfinished thought, and can lead to more misunderstandings because you did not hear them out to the end of their comment.
Not only should you actively receive the conversation, but you should show them that you are listening, by appreciating what they have to say. In a spoken conversation, that can be small appreciative noises like hmm and uhuh and nodding your head to demonstrate that you are listening. (You should probably refrain from nodding if you are on the phone though!)
Once they have completed their statement, summarize what you've just heard - not the entire story, just your understanding of the problem or comment. This is where you are showing the recipient that you hear and understand them. Feel free to put this into your own words, so long as it is not too long. The word 'so' is great to use at this phase.
Finally, follow up the summary with relevant questions based on what you've heard to help you identify and address the speaker's expectations from this conversation. (Are they looking for advice? reassurance? consoling?)
So what's active listening got to do with the above story, you might ask? Well, let's revisit that scenario again:
If Joe Manager had actively listened to the homeowner's actual problem, he would have known that her real issue was an inability to get sleep because of the flickering street light. With this knowledge in hand, he could have contacted the city and, upon finding out that they were backed up and unable to send someone out right away, might have asked them to simply turn off the light until they were able to come out and fix it, or if that was not an option, offer to put up a bag or board to cover the owner's window to tide her over until the city was able to come out.
'Out of the box' solutions like this come when one takes the time to truly listen, and understand the reasons behind complaints, and then FOLLOW THROUGH in their communications. Had Joe taken these steps, even if the homeowner had declined his offer, she would have been left feeling that this was a manager who goes above and beyond, and instead of trashing his name, she would have been praising it.
Taking these steps to becoming a better listener can make us all better communicators and thus better Community Managers (with happier homeowners)!
Watch the full TED Talk video by Julian Treasure:
Interested in learning more?
- Check out Julian's book, Sound Business.
- Read this article breaking down the points from the TED talk
- Here are some more great tips on active listening