While Chartered Accountants are renowned for their problem solving skills, strong listening skills are equally important, writes Patricia Barker.
When I was a young Chartered Accountant, I was trained, like you, to be a problem solver. I became an accounting lecturer and I taught students to solve problems. I served for 25 years as Chair of the Irish Financial Reporting Committee, which, among other things, solved financial accounting problems. I saw myself as an expert, capable of solving problems for others. I expected others to accept and adopt my solutions. That’s our role as Chartered Accountants, isn’t it? To develop and maintain expertise, to listen to the problems of others and to give them reliable solutions. To this day, I confidently put on my CV:“I am a problem solver”.
Some years ago, however, I was ignominiously bucked off my white charger of confidence. I started a programme in counselling at Maynooth University, buoyed by the certitude of my ability to solve the problems of anyone in distress. It soon became obvious that I might actually FAIL the course! While I was top of the class in the academic exercises around the psychological models, psychodynamic approaches, and the works of Freud, Rogers, and Lazarus,I was rubbish at the practicality of applying the theory to active listening. I had to go through a very painful process of acknowledging that my training as a Chartered Accountant had not prepared me for the important professional and social skill of listening to problems that aren’t related to technical issues, but to interpersonal matters including ethical dilemmas.
I admitted to myself that I was not a good listener and that there are professional circumstances when problem solving skills are not only inappropriate, but actually damaging. It was extraordinary how liberating it was for me to confess to my tutor that I (who had never failed anything in my life) was making a complete dog’s dinner of active listening and to ask for help in acquiring the skills.
What had I been doing?
When I reflected on how I had been trained as a professional accountant, I realised that when a client presented with a problem, I listened carefully to the facts and classified them in my head to define the problem for myself. While the client continued talking, adding (mostly unnecessary) frills to the story of how the problem came up and what had been said by all parties, I would nod sympathetically but turn my concentration to how this problem could be solved. I stopped listening to the client and focused on the optimal solution. Often I would interrupt the client’s flow with a question about the facts until I was sure I had all the pertinent evidence. When the client stopped talking (or sometimes, before), I would present my answer to the problem and generally expected that my recommendations be implemented in full.
Often, due to the technical nature of the issue, the client might not fully understand the solution but that was not significant so long as they understood how to implement the solution.
What’s the issue?
So, what’s wrong with that approach? The client had a tricky problem and I knew the area. I gave the answer and the client implemented. Problem solved. Everyone happy – yes? Well – and here’s the rub – not always. I realised that I used that technique to solve all problems I encountered. It was fine for informational problems, such as: what time is the next bus? How much tax is payable on that? Is there any international regulation covering that situation? However, it is not a good approach for the kind of ethical and interpersonal problems we all meet regularly.
Consider the following situation. John works for Mary and has to prepare a significant report that he must bring to the board on Monday morning. He is normally a highly effective colleague. He comes to see Mary on Friday morning to tell her that he will not have the work done and to ask for her advice. He looks pretty stressed and is not entirely coherent. Mary quickly concludes that no amount of encouragement or pressure is going to get the analysis out of him on time. While he is still making his excuses (something about his mother being ill and some anniversary coming up), Mary is nodding and looking sympathetic, but rapidly checking her watch. She is thinking how she can reconfigure the report so that other colleagues can bring it to completion together. She then interrupts John and tells him what she has decided that she will get his co-workers to take the job from him and that they will work over the weekend. They will just about get it finished on Sunday night and he needn’t worry. She mentions that her mother was sick three months ago and she was able to get nurses in to help. She tells him that she will forward the phone number of the nursing service by email. Once the problem has been solved, Mary stands up and starts to put the plan into action. John wanders off, after surreptitiously snatching a tissue from the box on Mary’s desk.
The job was done – the report was completed thanks to great teamwork and the board was delighted. Great result. Right? Wrong! Mary totally mishandled this situation as she failed to listen, with the result that Mary did not hear John’s feelings. She should have heard and named the following: distress about his mother’s illness, sadness at the anniversary of his father’s death, personal stress, shame at having to admit failure, concern at putting work on his colleagues, loss of control of his portfolio and worry about the future implications for his career.
Having noticed and named the feelings, she then should have allowed John the opportunity to reflect on his feelings and on how they were affecting him. Mary instead stopped listening to John and started to formulate her solution to his problem. In doing so, she missed key signals about how John’s feelings were impacting on him and on his work. Mary was instead focused on solving the problem through action. She did not give John an opportunity to suggest how the work might be best handled and did not ask him how she could support him. She effectively disempowered her colleague and took the issue out of his hands. This move will likely damage his confidence and his credibility with his colleagues.
Mary was also disrespectful in failing to listen to John and in interrupting him. She should have stayed behind him instead of charging out in front and leading the conversation. Mary told John that he mustn’t worry, but she should have heard his worry and not dismissed it. Mary assumed that she understood John’s problem with his mother and attempted to impose her own nursing solution. Lastly, Mary signalled to John, by looking at her watch, that she wasn’t really listening and wanted him out of her office so that she could get on.
Chartered Accountants helping a client, colleague or friend with most ethical dilemmas need to engage their active listening skills as opposed to their problem solving skills. Those skills can be summarised as follows:
- Notice your own wellbeing, energy, sensitivity, concentration and robustness as you listen. You should be relaxed and grounded, and ready to give time to listening and the opportunity for a follow-up meeting;
- Stay with the feelings you hear rather than focus solely on cold facts;
- Tentatively verbalise the feelings you think you are hearing (“You seem to be angry/confused/upset?”);
- Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t. Seek clarification as this will assure your colleague that you are really listening. (“Am I correct in saying you are concerned about collusion?”);
- Don’t reassure if it’s not appropriate. (“Don’t worry, everything will be okay and we will sort this out.”) It may not be possible to sort it out;
- Don’t dismiss a feeling. (“Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel guilty!”) Just notice the guilt and wait to see if it would be good to talk about it;
- Be prepared to sit in silence with your colleague while she or he takes time to think. Don’t feel that you need to fill the silence with chatter;
- Don’t interrogate. Let your colleague disclose as much as she or he wants. Focus on what has been said and the feelings that underpin it rather than what comes next;
- Let your colleague explore the options for what can be done next. Do not give your solution. If you feel, having listened to the options mentioned, that some important options have been missed, you might tentatively suggest them;
- Check what supports your colleague would like and discuss how this might be done; and
- Summarise what you have been discussing and the tentative next steps as indicated by your colleague. Suggest taking time to consider your conversation and schedule a follow-up meeting.
Your colleague may not need to meet again, but it is good to give her or him the option.
If, during your conversation, your colleague even hints at “not being able to continue”, finding it “too difficult to cope”, stating that “they would be better off without me” or any other suggestion that she or he is struggling and has any level of suicidal intent or ideation, you should ask three straight questions, as recommended by caring organisations such as Pieta House and Metanoia.org.
Firstly, “Are you saying that you are considering taking your own life?” Hopefully, your colleague will say “no” and you continue the conversation after making clear that you are always available to listen. Do not avoid the issue or try to jolly her or him along.
Secondly, if your colleague says “yes” to the question above, ask: “Have you thought how you might take your own life?” If the answer is “No”, you should give her or him the opportunity to reflect on how painful the situation is and what professional help they have considered. Options include her or his GP, the Samaritans and Pieta House.
Thirdly, if your colleague says “yes” to the question above, ask if they have taken any steps to further that objective. If they say “yes”, you need to talk about an ambulance and professional help. You should stay with your colleague in this instance.
Don’t assume that you are a good listener and that none of this applies to you simply because you run a happy ship. The skills associated with active listening are essential for all of us. They need to be learned and practised, and are as important as the problem solving skills that you, as a Chartered Accountant, have mastered.
You need to be alert to situations – including some ethical predicaments – which require active listening and you should be ready to operate in a different way.
You can practise the next time you are engaged in a conversation with your recalcitrant teenage daughter, your distressed father-in-law or that guy in your club who wants to confide in you.
Patricia Barker FCA is Adjunct Professor of Accounting at Dublin City University and a Council member at Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland.
This article was originally published in the October 2015 edition of Accountancy Ireland.