d.i.y. ombuds kit -- tool #1
Tool #1 is Active listening
This post is the first in a series of skills you can use to be your own Ombudsman, i.e. a neutral problem-solver who works out solutions with government agencies.
What is active listening?
Active listening is actually listening to someone. It is listening without interruption, paying attention to their words, tone of voice and facial expressions. Listening without thinking about what you are going to say next and without thinking, “When IS it going to be my turn, anyway?” In person, it is making eye contact and using friendly body language.
Active listening involves summarizing what the person told you for clarity and to ensure they know they were heard. This means paraphrasing and repeating back what someone said. It’s best to summarize what they said before you launch into your comments. It’s a magical skill that helps people feel acknowledged.
Why use active listening?
Have you had the experience of talking with a government office and feeling like you could not get a word in? You just want to tell the person what you need, but the person insists on telling you other information. You feel like someone put a quarter in a jukebox and you are forced to listen to their song.
The first step in active listening with a government official is letting that person talk.
Recently, I called a government office to get a username for an account. I had the password, but not the username. The woman who answered launched into an explanation of how to set the password and username. I kept trying to interrupt to let her know that I just needed to know how they created my username. I decided to try an experiment – to stop talking and time how long it took her to finish. It was well under two minutes. Two minutes is not long to listen if it gets you to the next stage of a conversation or gets you the information needed.
Yes, I know you are “the customer” and you would like to speak first and explain what you need. But sometimes people will not listen to you until they know you have listened to them. Some front-line staff in government offices is trained to tell everyone the same information up front. They may know from experience that 99% of callers need the information that they are reciting to you. You can spend more than two minutes trying to interrupt or you can listen.
What if you do not have the information you need after listening?
This is the time to summarize. A government official may not understand that you are the exception until you prove that you understand the rule. Give a brief summary (i.e. paraphrase) and repeat what you just heard. It’s a sign of courtesy, respect and proves that you understood the information given. When you repeat something back, the government official thinks “Yes, she gets it.” Then, you can move on to explaining your issue.
The summarizing step in active listening also helps if a conversation gets stuck in a loop where you both keep repeating yourselves. Taking the time to summarize what the government official is saying – whether you agree or not – can move the conversation forward.
So, try active listening next time you talk to a government official. I promise this can help you get to the next level with most government offices. Let me know in the comments below if you have any examples of where this has (or has not) worked when talking with government officials.
Thanks to Conflict Management Services in Columbus, Ohio where I first learned about active listening.