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Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent

The other night, elbow deep in a sink of sudsy pasta water, trying to tune out a very, very loud Trolls song, I mumbled a distracted “yes” to my effervescent 4-year-old who had asked the same question at least 4 times. Wait, what did I just agree too?? I wasn’t trying to be a bad listener. I was just preoccupied, thinking about baths and bedtime stories, tidying up, and lunch prep that were all separating me from what is never enough sleep.  I felt a tug at my shirt and looked down into a sweet, but frustrated face saying, “MOM! You’re not listening to me!”  Mom fail.  You are correct my child, I was not. It got me thinking about how to better integrate the listening skills I cultivate at work into my home life.

Dr. Ralph Nichols, one of the founders of the field of listening, once said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Thankfully, I don’t have to go far to work on my listening skills.

Listening deeply was the first core value that bubbled to the surface as Sustrana began to define who “We” are and how we interact with our clients and partners. My first week at Sustrana, I was heartened to see such a challenging company value, proudly displayed in the common area.  After working for much larger organizations where values were memorialized, but rarely nurtured, I was curious to see how listening deeply would play out, not only internally amongst our small team, but also externally with our clients.

Listening Deeply Outside Our Walls: Blah, Blah Blah….wait, what did you say?

How often do we go into situations at home and at work and are not fully present?  How often are we so preoccupied by the point we want to make, that we miss the opportunity to truly hear what the other person is saying?  As the VP of Sales and Business Development, it is my responsibility to reach out to Sustainability Professionals, listen to their stories, and try to understand their pain points. Some days, I am better at this than others. Most days, I take two minutes before a call to close my eyes and suspend any pre-conceived ideas about how I want the conversation to go and how I can help.  On those days, I find the call has a more rhythmic flow. I’m able to better understand whether we can be of service, and if not, recommend someone who would be a better fit.

One thing I’ve gleaned from listening to Sustainability Professionals is they all have a lot of work. Competing priorities, limited resources, data challenges, strategy hurdles, implementation issues, and lack of senior-level buy-in. But out of those factors, the one that seems to cause the most frustration and discontent is the lack of buy-in; the sense that management just doesn’t get what sustainability is about. I’ve often heard these Sustainability Professionals lament, “It feels like they [Senior Managers] just don’t hear me.” Interestingly enough, I’ve also heard Senior Managers lament that Sustainability Managers don’t always do a good job of hearing and incorporating business priorities and objectives into their planning.  As my daughter can attest, it’s tough not feeling heard – no matter who you are.

One of the things I love most about the Sustrana platform is its ability to give Sustainability Professionals a well-tuned voice – one that’s tuned to creating and protecting business value; one that can be easily heard. It does this by fostering cross-functional collaboration and informed communication with “others.”  Whether that’s others in EHS or Procurement, HR or Management, the platform does a stellar job encouraging people to understand and really listen to each other before defining KPI’s or deciding what projects to tackle. Once the lines of communication have opened and a strategy has been developed, the ROI gets a lot clearer.  And a crystal-clear ROI tends to get heard and make sense to everyone.

Listening Deeply Inside Our Walls: Back at Sustrana

Last fall my father in law was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer.  He passed away 10 weeks later.  At that time Sustrana didn’t have a bereavement policy and balancing work, travel to be with family, 2 small kids, and all the emotions that accompanied death, was hard on me – and the company, too. A couple weeks after the funeral, I went to Sustrana Co-Founders Jen and Nancy and explained how I felt bereavement time should be included in our company benefits.  Despite being a startup, with limited resources, they heard me. Shortly thereafter, a bereavement plan was instituted.  Sustrana had lived its value of listening deeply, and it felt awesome to be part of a culture that stayed true to its mission.

Practice Makes Perfect You Better:  What I heard you say is…

So how can we become better listeners? How can we make sure we really hear the messages behind what our clients, our bosses, and our children are saying? Carl Rogers, the great American psychologist, taught “active listening,” a practice of repeating back or paraphrasing what you think you are hearing and seeking clarification when the meaning is not clear. Active Listening involves listening, from a deep, receptive, and caring place in oneself, so you can connect to and empathize with the deeper, subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person.  Whether you are a Sustainability Manager or a parent, the “What I heard you say…” statement is a simple yet effective phrase to adopt if you want to confirm that you not only heard what was said but also understood it.

Back to Dr. Nicholas, the listening expert. He viewed the act of listening deeply as the seminal path to acceptance and cooperation in today’s complex and ever-changing world of business. I’d add that it’s the path to sustainability and good parenting, too.  To survive in this world, we must become better listeners and communicators.  At the Quaker school my daughter attends, they sit for meeting every morning.  Friends may pass or speak as they choose, but a period of silence for reflection follows each contribution. She’s only 4, but I’m glad she’s learning the art of listening at such a young age and I hope she continues to call me out when she feels unheard.  In the meantime, I’ll endeavor to become better at actively listening to my colleagues and my kids.  And the next time we speak, I hope I remember to pause and confirm, “What I heard you say is…”

Need help getting buy-in?  Email me at mschmidt@sustrana.com or click here to schedule a demo of Sustrana’s software, and let’s work together to get your vision heard.

This is the second in a series of blogs about Core Values:

  1. Core Values: How Differences Helped Define a Sustainability Culture
  2. Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent
  3. An Open Mind: the Super Powers of Diversity and Inclusion
  4. Cultivating Authenticity
  5. The Power of Positives: Creating a Community for Impact
  6. Inspire & Empower: Why It’s Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table
  7. Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies