Listening is a radical act


Cindy Vallance

In my last post, I promised to share some thoughts from a class I attended as a result of the Change Academy. The Thinking Environment master class brought together a mix of University staff across a range of institutions and staff type – academic and professional services, to consider how we can have more productive meetings, solve business problems, create strategies and build stronger relationships. Sounds good? Of course? Simple? Yes. Easy? Not at all.

The principles from the class are built on the writings of Nancy Kline, and as would be expected, there are ten core principles (she states in her book she’d welcome an eleventh so if you think of another, let her know).  

For this posting, I’m going to focus on just the first, and the most powerful. ATTENTION. “Thinking for yourself is the thing on which everything else depends.” I often tell people that one thing I enjoy about working at a University is working with people who think for a living. Academic staff member, professional service staff member, or student – ideas are the lifeblood of a University. But when we are all so busy, when do we actually find time to think? And what is the quality of our thinking? Is it possible for us to help each other to think? And if it is, how would we go about it?

How do we feel when we truly feel listened to? A sampling of responses from those who attended the class include:

I am more likely to solve challenges, share, and give more

I feel more confident

It clarifies my thoughts in my own mind

I feel validated and worthwhile

I feel a better connection with the listener

But listening can be a radical act, especially when we are so often in a hurry. When was the last time someone asked you, “What do you think, what do you really think?” And then waited for you to answer at length and in detail?  

We think we listen but we don’t. We finish each others’ sentences, we interrupt, we wait to begin our own story or response, we get ready to share our advice and expertise, we look at our watches, or we walk away. What if we listened with full ATTENTION, giving every ounce of our energy, not to what we will say next, but to what the other person is saying?

People are often interrupted after speaking for 90 seconds or less. How much quality thinking can happen in 90 seconds? Why do we interrupt? My idea is better than yours; if I don’t speak now I will never get a word in edgewise; I know what you are about to say; interrupting will save time; nothing about your idea will improve with further elaboration.

The reality is that we will often be wrong if we assume we know what someone will say next. An example, from Nancy Kline’s book illustrated this. One person began “I don’t know what to do about Larry. As his manager, I think we should recommend that we fire”… and then she stopped mid-sentence. Nancy Kline waited three seconds and was about to say “Larry” when the person said “up his imagination and natural talent a bit more.” A radically different response – especially for Larry!

So, if you do nothing else, if you read no more, if you decide you’re not interested in nine other ways to create a thinking environment…start practicing this one and next time someone speaks, simply pay rapt ATTENTION, don’t interrupt, don’t think of your response, just really listen.


Change and work: more misplaced assumptions

Conventional wisdom has tended towards considering change in the context of ‘programmes and projects’. However this approach does not easily lend itself to embedding change into day-to-day work. For example a common misconception is to use ‘training’ as a method to secure change, when other influences need to be addressed first. A second commonly ineffective method is to use ‘communication’ (telling people about the change), but this will have little impact in terms of real change.  Leandro Herrero (2006) recognises this misconception and suggests that the most important focus should be on behaviours. Seddon (2005) emphasises that work behaviour driven is by a change in thinking; how we see what we do and why we do it.

The change of perspective is subtle but important; for example there is the misconception that “New processes and systems will create the new necessary behaviours.”  Herrero (2006) suggests that instead it is new behaviours that are needed FIRST  to support new processes and systems. If you change a system first, people will adapt their behaviour BUT it may not be the behaviour that you want – it will depend on a variety of other factors. If you s=get the thinking right first then the design of improved systems will follow.

This brings us to challenge a third misconception, “People are rational and will react to logical and rational requests for change”; often we are individually and collectively much more complicated. Instead, people’s behavioural changes only happen if they are reinforced; leaders need to walk the talk and be consistent in the way they prioritise, make decisions and use resources in line with the change they expect to see (Seddon 2005).

Part of this is to embed continuous improvement and a culture where change is expected – a normal part of work. This is change with purpose, seeking improvement (rather than change for change’s sake). This contradicts a further misplaced assumption that “After change you need a period of stability and consolidation”  – on the contrary, we need a culture of continuous improvement, involving an on-going dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work and a mentality that makes things happen. Establishing these new behaviours as a routine means that momentum can be maintained.

Change is a balancing act!


Read more on change…

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

A Little More on Change Academy Values

Cindy Vallance

I spoke in my last posting about the values we initially decided were important within the Change Academy initiative.

Just to recap, these are: Involving students, Openness, Collaboration, Innovation, Listening, Equality, Partnering, Inspiration, Fun, Respect, Trust. I asked the question “Who wouldn’t want to work and study with people who are trying their best to demonstrate these qualities, especially in a time of increasing change, uncertainty, unrest and pressure?”

Coincidentally, I happened to read, just one day after my posting, this statement about values:

 “Statistically speaking, (in creating a list of ‘values’), you have just created a document that will be the source of one of the top five greatest reasons for contempt, de-motivation, disloyalty and turnover in your organisation. All of this comes from the discrepancy between the values on the wall and the values on the ground. Organisations list values. But they don’t live them. And people hate this. They really, really hate it.” – Kline, Nancy (2009), More Time To Think, p. 271, Fisher King Publishing, England.

The reality, of course, is that organisations don’t live values – it is the people in the organisation that can and do. But what values?

When we had our initial conversations about the Change Academy initiative, we discussed the fact that the vision of Change Academy is to help teams of staff and students develop their knowledge, capacity and enthusiasm for achieving complex institutional change to benefit the student learning experience.

How can we do this within our own Change Academy initiative? We can do this by living the values we have said we support and by encouraging others to do the same. We can do this by considering the impact of our words and our actions on others. We can ask ourselves: Do we regularly build others up or do we tear them down? Do we walk away from meetings inspired or dejected? What are we doing to contribute to the success or failure of the meeting? Do we use our interactions as an opportunity to positively enhance our relationships with students and staff?

As part of the Change Academy project, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Thinking Environment Master Class through the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The goal of the session was to demonstrate how valuing the contribution of each person can drive team effectiveness, improve relationships and result in shorter, smarter meetings. I’ll share some of the principles and processes from the session in future blogs.

Sounds too good to be true? Come back with an open mind and see what you think.


Managing Change: delivering public sector reform

Public Service Events’ inaugural conference

Wednesday 7 December 2011, the Barbican, London

Notes from Chloé Gallien

Cindy Vallance, Steph Klaric and myself attended the above yesterday.

Details of programmes and speakers can be found on:

 Although the question of “what turns an ordinary project into one that really delivers beneficial change?” was very interesting, the conference did not, unfortunately, quite live up to our expectations. It suffered from not even a passing reference to universities being made as well as from an overexposure to talking head presentations by middle-aged white males from Whitehall..  (See my “tips for conference organisers” at the end).  There were, however, a few “take-aways” for me, which I have noted below:

Some recurring themes:  

  • The importance-  and difficulty-  of disseminating learning :�
    • How to learn quickly from models that worked?
    • How to ensure that lessons, from successes as well as failures, are propagated and learned, not just observed?
    • Also to ensure that people know- and talk- about successes not just failures?


  • The importance-  and difficulty-  of getting buy-in and  overcoming resistance to change:
    • Useful to use simple, stakeholders’ analysis to identify allies, “neutrals” and “blockers”; important not to focus on “blockers” but to strengthen allies’ commitment and work with them to convince “neutrals”.
    • Have clear map of how projects link with organisation’s strategic objectives
    • Be absolutely clear and honest in all communication, about what is driving the change but also about the scope and constraints of the initiative.
    • Do not be afraid of sharing bad news and do not avoid difficult questions or conversations.


  • How to resolve tension between needing to “get on with things” and get results and the equally important need to think things through before acting?


Idea of the day

Providing a “conversations wall” in a prominent place where everyone in the organisation is encouraged to write or use sticky notes to post ideas/suggestions/comments/quotes/drawings/ photos on a monthly theme.


Quotes of the day

“We are talking about a mindset, not another manual.”

“Change is not fun.  It is a route to a much improved future.”

“There is no change without risk; we just need to be able to manage that risk.”

“Everyone wants authority by no one wants accountability.”

“People change one person at a time.”

“Consultants can do many things but they cannot transform your organisation for you.”

“Don’t share a solution; share a problem which everyone is involved in solving.” It made me think of another quote heard on another occasion: “One needs to develop a shared plan rather than share a developed plan”.


“We never communicate enough.”


Tips for conference organisers:

  • Provide speakers with  participants’ lists before hand and ask them to ensure that they try and  adapt their  presentations accordingly
  • Try and think of varying the presentation formats as well as the type of presenters.
  • Ask your speakers to avoid unexplained acronyms,  over- crowded slides,  or  slides which are illegible at the back of the room


Why the interest in the Change Academy? Core Values and Vision for 2015

Cindy Vallance

Why are people interested? I believe this is due to what we have loosely called our values and the qualities that we are working to exemplify as a group:

Involving students                  Openness                           Collaboration                    Innovation

Listening                     Equality                               Partnering                          Inspiration         

Fun                                        Respect                                                Trust     

Who wouldn’t want to work and study with people who are trying their best to demonstrate these qualities, especially in a time of increasing change, uncertainty, unrest and pressure?

A memorable quote from Tom Ritchie (Kent Union President) at the end of the Residential event: I thought that the Change Academy event would be boring, would not be of any value and that I would be treated as the token student. Instead, I found the experience interesting, the activities valuable, and I have had an equal voice with others at the table.

At the Residential, we spent a great deal of time shut away in a small room, talking and sharing our thoughts of what we would like to collectively achieve.

We came up with some thoughts of what we would like to see at University of Kent by the time we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2015. In no particular order here are some of our key themes:

Everyone feels that change is possible – giving people better work (‘getting things working better’)

  1. People feel able to implement change
  2. Good teaching is recognised and respected as much as good research
  3. Innovative techniques,  inter-institution collaboration and best practice sharing occur
  4. There will be an effective, clear, and positive communications strategy
  5. We will reinforce positive messages through our language and our interactions with others
  6. There will be joined up thinking everywhere
  7. All are respectful and all voices are listened to
  8. Income streams for the University are transparent and understood by all staff
  9. Technology really works including consistent good quality use of Moodle
  10. All are involved within the fabric of the University
  11. There are opportunities to have debate and conversations around liaison and learning
  12. Students and staff feel proud to be at Kent and recommend Kent to others
  13. We form lasting relationships between staff, students, and employers
  14. There is early exposure to senior, characterful and dynamic teaching staff
  15. Students are helped to define why they are there and what they want from the experience. When they leave the university they know what they have achieved and gained
  16. Staff provide useful references and career advice to students
  17. There is a realisation that there really is no ‘typical’ staff or student
  18. Staff and students are involved in and have input into the creation and implementation of he institutional plan
  19. Staff and students integrate with other, different, staff and students – we break down silos


We will not achieve this vision through the efforts of only a few. We are on a journey and this journey has only just begun. Join in by commenting on these blogs and share your thinking with us. Learn more about our thoughts, ideas and plans in the blogs that will follow.

Setting the Context for Change Academy: What is it and who is involved?


Cindy Vallance

Staff and student members from the University of Kent have been participating in a Change Academy initiative within Social Sciences. What is Change Academy?

Residential Team (left to right): Tom Ritchie, Simon Black, Bill Collier, Helen Carr, Stephen Burke. Not shown: Gill Sinclair, Cindy Vallance.

Change Academy is a partnership between the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. This year, ten HE institutions took part in a residential programme to help teams of staff and students develop their knowledge, capacity and enthusiasm for achieving complex institutional change to benefit the student learning experience. A key event of the Change Academy programme was the four-day residential experience in September 2011 which launched the initiative and was designed to encourage our team and others to focus attention on our projects, encourage creativity, and develop and practice a range of techniques to build momentum for change following our return to Kent. The original residential team has been thrilled to see the interest that others have shown for the initiative and the group has already nearly doubled in size since returning from the residential event with the addition of Alison Dean, Naomi Dumbrell, Chloé Gallien, Mick Norman, Leo Wilkinson. The current group of 12 reflects a diverse range of roles. Just consider our job titles (and yes some of them are rather lengthy): Soc Sc Faculty Learning Technologist; Economics Lecturer and Director of Studies Stage 1; Soc Sc Faculty Administration Manager; Master of Eliot College and KBS Senior Tutor, Project and Finance Manager; Learning and Development Adviser; Timetabling Office Learning and Teaching Space Manager; Kent Union President; Head of Organisational Development; KBS Senior Lecturer and Soc Sc Sub-Dean for Learning and Teaching; Soc Sc Student Representative, Learning and Development Coordinator; KLS Reader and Director of Learning and Teaching. Why is Change Academy of interest to such a wide range of already very busy people?


Highlighting misplaced assumptions: the myth of leadership-driven change

In the past 15-20 years there has been an increasing trend towards viewing leaders as the change agents and transformers of organisations; this view even has its own brand name ‘Transformational Leadership’. Although many of the suggested ‘transformational’ leadership behaviours are well researched, the inevitable catalogues of ‘best practice’ have resulted in the embedding of incorrect assumptions about managing change. Leandro Herrero (2006) is one author who challenges three such misconceptions.

A vision for change need not come solely from leaders

First, Hererro challenges the misconception that:

Only change at the top can ensure change within the organisation”.  Not true

Change at the top is desirable, but it is not always necessary in the first instance. Leaders can be influenced by others and people across the organisation need to realise that their own ideas can make a difference.

A second incorrect assumption is:

“Vision for change needs to come from the top and cascade down”.

Not necessarily and cascades of information and ideas can be slow and ineffective.

Vision may or may not come from the top. More importantly, if people want to implement change, then working through the hierarchy may also NOT be the best method and may even impede progress. There are better ways to devise, test and implement change in a way that will stick and this possibility challenges the final misconception:

Big change requires big actions”.

Big changes in complex organisations can make things worse rather than better.

A big, organisation-wide programme is not necessarily the best method to engage people and make things different.

If we always expect leaders to be the source of change it will put the brakes on progress. Leaders do however have the key role of encouraging people, looking for opportunities and providing an environment where people are not threatened by change, but are encouraged to make a difference. Small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread. If we engage in new ways of thinking and acting we can influence the people around us and engage in the development of the university in a new way.

Read more about these ideas:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.