The Soft Skills of Governance


The Constitutional Convention of the United States was a protracted affair for good reason: planning and implementing governance is hard. When separate parties have competing agendas, compromise becomes the only way forward. And when tempers and fears grow, sometimes compromise becomes more of a personal challenge than a professional one.

As with countries, companies are comprised of people. Good company governance takes this into account, not only in representation, but in formation. The endless meetings and email threads can create frustration, which can lead to conflict, which can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Listening becomes a vital skill during the the formation process.

In high-pressure environments, taking the time to listen carefully and compassionately is as important as it is difficult to remember. But if we have learned anything from Google’s Project Aristotle, the psychological safety that results from good listening brings out the best in teams. So how do we listen better? This can be broken into two categories: tactics and mindset.

Listening tactics are quite simple, and only require a few instances of practice to commit them to memory. Unsurprisingly, the same techniques that work in counseling work well in the boardroom:

Open-ended questions: Instead of asking questions that elicit a simple yes or no response, lean toward questions that use who, what, when, where, why, and how. These types of questions require people to elaborate, and help you better understand the problem. They also give your interlocutor room to list many things that you might not have considered, ultimately circling nearer to the problem at hand.

Clarifying questions: These are follow-up questions. When combined with open-ended questions, clarifying questions further the conversation and uncover deeper meaning. Just be sure to not interrupt; you can always return to a previous topic.

Paraphrasing: By paraphrasing, you are able to check if you properly understood what the other party said, by ending with phrases such “is that right?” You also give the other party the opportunity to hear back what they said, which may give them a reality check. Finally, it gives both you and the other party space to think.

Reflecting emotion: Sometimes simply telling someone, “That sounds very frustrating” can help them to open up, and puts you both on the same side.

Tone and pace: Matching others’ tone and pace will help you not seem too excited or too morose.

Silence: During long pauses, people will often try to fill the silence with something. Often that something is unguided and revealing. Silence also gives you a break to gather your own thoughts, and ensure that you don’t speak too soon and interrupt the other person.

Minimal encouragers: This is especially important on a call; minimal encouragers such as “mmhmm”, “aah”, and “okay” inform the other side that you are actively listening. The frequency and style of these can vary greatly from culture to culture.

Going into meetings flustered, angry, or detached usually doesn’t accomplish much, and more often generates necessary follow-up, either in the form of apologies or more meetings to re-conceptualize the original intent. There is currently a lot of public discussion around emotional intelligence, and for good reason: it works. Recognizing when you are becoming angry, confused, or scared, will help you to not be consumed by these emotions. By not being consumed, you can focus more clearly on the task at hand. By recognizing when you are consumed, you can know when to step outside to collect yourself.

Unfortunately, this mindset isn’t taught in most corporations—it is almost always something you have to learn and practice on your own. Meditation, prayer, mindfulness, gratefulness, and walks in nature are all ways to achieve a better mindset at work. And while it may seem “hooey”, the next time you find your face flush and your heart racing in a meeting, you will be thankful to have noticed it at all. You will be able to remind yourself that you don’t need to approach whatever is in front of you from a fight-or-flight position. You will be better equipped to simply sit there and listen.

Working with with an unattached third party can be very helpful. At Expium we often find that our greatest asset is not our knowledge or experience, but our ability to listen. By listening more than talking, by asking more than telling, we get to the heart of your unique situation. Being completely new to the company is also quite beneficial—we don’t carry any social baggage.

If you are looking for someone to help you with your governance challenges, give us a call. We’re here to listen.  

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