Richard Hart

Head of Something @ Somewhere
Kent, UK

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Listening for the Real Challenge

A situation that often comes up in meetings is that someone will raise an issue, using a recent situation as an example of what’s going on, but the discussion switches into being about the recent situation rather than the original issue itself. For example:

Person A: We really need to think about re-architecting Project X. Just last week, the team’s changes had a significant performance impact on the production site. What could we do differently to make the system more scalable?

Person B: Marketing were the ones asking for the changes because {insert long back story} …

Person C: Marketing are always putting pressure on us to deliver features that make little sense. Can’t we push back on them?

Person A: Well, the problem with Marketing is…

The discussion went from trying to address issues with the system to being about Marketing. It’s easy to get sucked into carrying on the thread because it feels productive, but the original point is forgotten, and then the meeting runs out of time.

When a discussion veers off course, I try to remind people what the original challenge was to get things back on track. But often, precious time has already been lost. It can be difficult to rein a discussion back in if strong characters are involved or from not wanting to be rude and interrupt the flow of the conversation.

For everyone taking part, listening to understand, rather than listening to respond, is an essential skill to ensuring discussions stay on point. One question I learned during my coach training is, “What is the real challenge here?”. I often say that to myself while listening to ensure that I’m paying attention to what’s being discussed when a problem is being described, resisting the urge to latch onto something related but isn’t the real challenge.