By Debra Allcock Tyler
From It's Tough at the Top: The no-fibbing guide to leadership, Directory of Social Change, 2017


The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.
- Henry David Thoreau

The above quote sums up for me why it is so important to consult. For one thing, it’s useful. You are one brain with one way of looking at the world. Many brains mean many ideas and many ways of looking at the world. There is a very good chance that when you ask people what they think and what their ideas are you will hear things that you didn’t expect: fresh ideas; new ways of looking at old problems.

Secondly, nothing makes people feel as valued and important as being asked for their opinions and ideas. It makes them feel part of something more than just their job and that they have the chance to contribute. That alone is likely to make them want to engage more in change and development in the organisation. Even if you can’t act on what they suggest, at least you have asked them and they know that you have.

So you can see that consultation with staff and volunteers is vitally important, but is so often done badly. This is because we are not always clear what is and is not up for consultation, or indeed, even what consultation actually is.

Genuine consultation is that which begins before you have decided what action to take. That is, you ask people for their input, ideas, feedback and so on before you take any decisions.

There are five stages to consultation:

  1. Consult on what the decision(s) should be.
  2. Consider what you have heard before making the decision.
  3. Make the decision.
  4. Communicate the decision and ask for feedback on it if necessary.
  5. Check that it is being implemented and is working and amend the decision if appropriate.

Do not tell staff you are consulting them if you have already made up your mind. If you have already decided (and it is entirely right that occasionally you will make decisions without consulting) then make it clear that you are just informing them. If you ‘pretend’ to consult and then don’t act on their feedback your consultation mechanism will lose all credibility — and your ability to get people to implement your decisions will be undermined.

Generally speaking, when consulting on big decisions, it is better to conduct consultations face to face around a specific set of questions. For example, if you
are consulting about the cramped conditions in the offices and are aware that an
office move may be required then you might ask questions like:

  • What is it about our current conditions that is causing us difficulty?
  • What are the possible solutions to the problem?
  • What haven’t we considered?

This way, you may find that people come up with a solution that you hadn’t even considered. And at the very least you will be able to say genuinely, when you brief your final decision, that you had listened to staff and taken into account their views. Then they are more likely to cooperate or even ‘own’ the decision that has been taken. But it needs to be genuine. Believe it or not, staff really do have inbuilt bull**** detectors!


Talking about consultation (which obviously involves the ability to listen) brings me on to the issue of listening.

One of the key skills you need as a leader is the ability to listen. It’s a funny thing when you think about it: when we are young we are taught how to read, how to write and how to speak — but no one actually teaches us how to listen.

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I ? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee I ’m the leader
I ’m the leader
OK what shall we do?

This poem by Roger McGough usually makes people laugh because our normal concept of leadership (especially at the top) is that the leader knows exactly what needs to be done and how, and therefore does the deciding. In this poem someone has begged to be the leader but doesn’t know what to do. 

But actually the poem, for me, is telling about what really powerful leadership is about. It’s about asking and listening first before deciding. So ‘Now what shall we do?’ is a really good question for a leader to ask.

Those of you who have attended coaching or counselling skills courses will, no doubt, have experienced the training that distinguishes between active and passive listening. You will have learned that you need to indicate that you are listening through appropriate body language, using your voice to indicate listening through grunts and ‘mmmms’. However, I suspect that if you have to think about doing those things in order to demonstrate that you are listening then you probably aren’t genuinely listening at all.

Actually, I don’t believe listening is a skill. I believe it’s an attitude. When you genuinely want to hear what someone has to say you do pay close attention and listen carefully. So if you want to be an effective listener then the trick is to make yourself want to hear. What makes me want to listen is the fear that I might miss something really important if l don’t!

Although, isn’t it funny how people think you haven’t listened if you haven’t agreed? That is why, when you disagree with someone, you need to demonstrate you have listened by being clear about why you don’t agree.

Listening is hard in the normal course of things because we have so much going on inside our heads. The trouble is that our thoughts don’t switch off when we are listening: we are interpreting what we hear; comparing it with what we already know; thinking of a response. That is normal human behaviour. And in some ways I suspect it’s even harder when you are at the top because you have access to so much information which can cause ‘interference’ when you are listening to others.

Further, the way in which we listen is hugely affected by the filters through which we are hearing the speaker. We listen with the 6 Es: our ears, our eyes, our emotions, our experience, our expectations and our egos. Obviously we hear what people have to say, and not just through their words but also the tone of their voice. We hear with our eyes, in that we observe their body language and thereby add interpretation to the words we are hearing. We also hear with our emotions. If we are feeling negative or cross then that is likely to affect our listening. We have experiences which affect how we hear: we may have a previous, negative experience of an individual which makes it harder for us to listen openly, or we may feel we’ve ‘heard it all before’. We have expectations. We will anticipate what someone is going to say and how they are going to say it because of who they are, or our past experience of them, or what we assume that ‘type’ of person or person at that job level is likely to say. And finally we listen with our egos. We listen for what makes us feel good about ourselves, or shows us up in a good light.

This is how people will be listening to you all the time. There are only two things that you can do to counteract it. Firstly, recognise that this is what’s happening and adjust your speaking accordingly. Secondly, ensure that other people’s experience of your listening tells them you are open to hearing them, because that is more likely to encourage similar listening in them. 

In terms of your own listening, focus on your attitude and approach to your listening. I do not believe it is possible to listen in a vacuum, to have absolutely no thoughts or reaction to what you are hearing. So I believe the best approach is to focus on your attitude to your listening. Are you:

  • Listening ‘for being right’, i.e. right about them or right about your view?
  • Listening ‘for punishing’, i.e. looking for the mistake or them proving to you how useless they are?
  • Listening ‘for proving’ you know best?
  • Listening ‘for making’ your point?
  • Listening ‘for telling’ your story?
  • Listening ‘for them being wrong’?

The type of listening that will make us more effective as leaders is:

  • Listening ‘for understanding’ — where are they coming from; why are they saying what they are saying?
  • Listening ‘for resolution’ — what can you do to move things forward?
  • Listening ‘for action’ — what can you do to help?
  • Listening ‘for possibility’ — what new idea is coming out of their words?
  • Listening ‘for resolving breakdowns’ — where can you find agreement?
  • Listening ‘for building relationships’ — where is the common ground?

You won’t always listen well. None of us do. But at the very least you can continually ask yourself: are you listening with the right attitude?


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