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Hear and be heard: Achieving high-quality advocacy and inquiry at work

Do you ever feel like you can’t quite get your point across at work? Or maybe, you want to understand more about a decision that has been made? It’s frustrating to feel like you aren’t being heard, or that you don’t understand the motivation behind particular decisions that are being made. We sat down with Paul Larkin, Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach at NESLI to find out how we can hear and be heard at work using high quality advocacy and inquiry techniques.High-quality advocacy occurs when one states their point of view, explains their thinking and reasoning behind it, and invites and listens to another person’s point of view. High-quality inquiry is when one asks a question, shares what is behind their question and truly listens to the other’s response.Most conversations typically involve each person putting forward their point of view.  If you listen in to others conversations sometimes, you will likely notice very few questions asked, and those are often posed in a way that invites confirmation of one’s own point of view; very little real listening is undertaken. These is how low-quality advocacy and inquiry occur.What’s the difference between low-quality and high-quality advocacy and inquiry? According to Paul, the key difference between high-quality and low-quality advocacy and inquiry is your preparedness to reveal what is behind what you are saying and asking, and your openness to being genuinely interested in others’ views.“Low-quality advocacy, or everyday advocacy, could involve you making a simple statement. For example, ‘I think we should have paid parental leave in our company.’ Now, while that is a very valid belief, that statement doesn’t reveal anything about why you think that, or how you came to that conclusion.  It also doesn’t invite the other person to share their views,” Paul explains.Similarly, low-quality inquiry occurs where you ask a question, without providing context, or meaningfully engaging with the person with whom you are speaking.What does high-quality advocacy look like? There is a simple formula for high-quality advocacy.State your belief, opinion or ideaReveal the thinking or reasoning behind your pointInvite the listener to share their ideas about the topicActively listen With low-quality advocacy, you will find yourself stopping at the first step. There’s no real problem with this, but it’s also not very useful – you aren’t having an engaged, two-way conversation. Other barriers to achieving high-quality advocacy lie in feeling certain that you are right, or an unwillingness to consider other points of view.According to Paul, the best way to encourage your team to use high-quality advocacy is to practise it yourself.“The best way to influence others is by being a model of the behaviour you are trying to achieve.  People may be so amazed at the conversational outcomes you get that they will want to know how you do it.”What does high-quality inquiry look like?As with advocacy, there are four steps to achieving high-quality inquiry.Ask your questionExplain why you are asking the questionActively listen to their responseSeek to understand their point of view With low-quality inquiry, you will once again find yourself stopping at the first step, instead of going further to provide context, and to meaningfully listen and engage with the other person’s ideas. Barriers to achieving high-quality inquiry include the desire to be right, and a desire to be the person whose ideas are listened to and ultimately taken on board, leading to a disregard for the ideas and opinions of others on your team.Paul gives this advice for achieving high-quality inquiry: “Be constantly curious; suspend judgement; offer more questions than statements.”He adds, “whilst high-quality advocacy and inquiry may, on the surface, seem to take longer, the radical increase in understanding that arises leads to faster, more meaningful conversations and outcomes.”Once you and your team have practised high-quality advocacy and inquiry, you can have more meaningful conversations, more fully understand each other and have more open, robust, and fruitful conversations.How will you encourage your team to use high-quality advocacy and inquiry? Share with us in the comments below.

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Creating a culture of clarity: expert tips for effective conversations

Do you ever leave a conversation with a colleague and feel like you aren’t quite sure what you were discussing? You might feel like you don’t have the full picture of what they were trying to convey. This is quite common - but nonetheless it can make it hard to gain clarity and communicate clearly and effectively in the workplace.As a leader, there are things you can do to recognise and address these confusing conversations, creating clarity for yourself and your team. We spoke with Paul Larkin, Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach at NESLI, about what to look out for when conversations become clouded.Generalisations occur when someone makes a sweeping, all-encompassing, everything or nothing statement. For example, ‘everyone’s unhappy about that decision.’ While this is a concerning statement that needs to be addressed, it is unlikely that every single person is totally unhappy about a decision.Distortions occur when we take information and add meaning to it that may not be there. For example, a team member may look at their phone while someone is giving a presentation. The person presenting might take that gesture to mean that this individual does not care about the work they have done, or does not find it interesting. This may be the case – or there could be a family emergency, or an urgent alert. However, the person presenting has applied their own meaning to the action, and this is when a distortion occurs.Deletions occur when a crucial piece of information is left out. For example, ‘this is important.’ Who is it important to? Why is it important? Another example is ‘there’s no time.’ No time for what? Why is there no time? Most of the time, this will be clear. However, in situations where it is not immediately clear, or where further information is useful, it is important ask follow-up questions to truly understand what is going on.Blinking words are words that have multiple meanings, or that may lend themselves to different interpretations. Paul explains that often, there is ambiguity in a statement that needs to be addressed. But by identifying blinking words, you can ask further questions to figure out precisely what someone is saying to you.“For example, someone says, ‘The culture of this place is not healthy.’ Many people would either simply agree or disagree, aligned with their existing point of view,” explains Paul.“But by using generalisations, distortions and deletions, and by looking for blinking words, we can recognise that there is a lot in the statement that demands clarification, for example: where precisely is ‘this place’? Is it the company, department, team, city, country? What precisely is meant by ‘culture’? What precisely is meant by ‘healthy’? By recognising that there is a lot of ambiguous information in the statement, we can become curious and invite the person who said it to share some of their thinking more deeply.”In the above example, the words ‘culture’ ‘place’ and ‘healthy’ are all blinking words. To fully understand your colleague’s meaning, you need more clarity around what all these words mean to them.What happens next?Using high quality advocacy and inquiry techniques will allow you to clarify the issues and prompt your colleagues to communicate more clearly. Questions like:Who doesn’t agree with this decision?What is it about the culture here that is unhealthy?What does a positive culture look like to you?Who is this important to?Could it mean something else? Are you sure? By understanding generalisations, distortions, deletions and blinking words, and asking the right questions, you can help both yourself and your team to communicate effectively and with clarity.How will you use this information to communicate more clearly? Share with us in the comments below!

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New NESLI program empowers women teachers to step into leadership roles

NESLI is launching a new program that will help propel women into teaching careers by developing critical leadership and wellbeing skills.The NESLI Women’s Future Leaders Program focuses on improving resilience and wellbeing and  developing critical leadership, conflict management and networking skills. A recent study by Dr Sue Thompson shows that 26 per cent of women teachers report ‘a lot of stress’ in their roles, compared with 20 per cent of male teachers. The study also finds that teachers who report ‘a lot of stress’ are likely to leave the profession in the next five years. Dr Janet Smith, Program Director for NESLI, said that with women more likely to report high stress levels, it is likely that we will see more women leaving the teaching profession. “The absence of a reliable pool of future leaders in Australian schools is pressing and needs to be urgently addressed,” Dr Smith said.“Ensuring that teachers are aware of a pathway to leadership in a school environment, inspiring them to pursue leadership and enabling them to be effective, confident school leaders is critical to the success of Australia’s schools.“We know that while most teaching staff are women, most senior leadership positions in schools are held by men. We believe that nurturing the leadership aspirations and capability of emerging women leaders is an important step towards long-term gender equity, and better outcomes for schools, students and their communities.“The flexible, online program will set women teachers up for a successful career as future school leaders.”Recent findings from the National Initial Teacher Education Pipeline: Australian Teacher Workforce Data Report 1 (The Pipeline Report) reveal that Australia is facing a critical lack of new students studying and completing teaching degrees at universities. Attrition rates for early career teachers (those in their first five years) are estimated to be around 50 per cent, according to the Australian Association for Research in Education. “This research tells us that we are losing around half of our graduates before they can progress to middle and senior leadership roles in schools,” Dr Smith said.The Women’s Future Leaders Program is now open for enrolments. Visit www.nesli.org/futureleaders for more information and to apply. 

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A new way of thinking: Systems thinking for leadership

As leaders, we need to look at the big picture to identify challenges and support our team to find productive solutions. We sat down with Paul Larkin, Senior Facilitator and Executive Coach at NESLI, to discuss how systems thinking can allow us to strategically address issues for our teams.What is the difference between systems thinking and systematic thinking? Paul uses a frog analogy to explain the difference to the leaders he coaches.“If you wanted to understand a frog systematically, you’d take it to the lab, put it to sleep and methodically dissect it, learning about each part of its makeup in a linear, structured fashion,” he explained.“If you want to understand the frog’s system you’d go to the pond where it lives and observe how it interacts with its environment, what it eats, what eats it, how the nearby farms that fertilise their crops affect the ecosystem in which the frog lives etc. We see the bigger picture of the frog, how it is interdependent with other parts of the system in which it lives and how small changes can effect big change,” Paul concluded.So, rather than following a set process to look at individual parts, looking at something using systems thinking allows you to take a broader view, and identify the interdependent and external influences that can have an impact on the system and its parts that we want to understand. It’s about observing the environment – ecologists and economists are examples of professions that engage in systems thinking.Why don’t I already use systems thinking? As leaders, we are often thinking and problem-solving systematically. Taking action to resolve an issue is usually praised and seen as an indicator of positive influence and performance. There is nothing wrong with solving problems in a systematic fashion. But some problems are more complex and cannot be dealt with as readily.Systems thinking affords us an approach for working with complex problems in creative and sometimes counter-intuitive ways.How can I use systems thinking to create positive change in my organisation? By using systems thinking, you can step back from day-to-day problem solving, and consider the root causes of problems. You can identify interdependencies and understand the bigger picture.Paul uses the example of an IT department in a big corporation. Their team set KPIs around how quickly IT issues were resolved (90 percent of issues being fixed within a day). While this was an important measure, the team was focusing on ‘fixing’ problems, not on ‘eliminating’ problems – that is, addressing the causes and preventing the problems happening again.By taking a systems thinking approach, the team was able to shift their mental model and improving their performance. The team’s KPIs switched from the percentage of problems fixed to the percentage of problems eliminated, and within just a couple of months achieved a 70 percent reduction in problems and associated cost.This example highlights how a shift to systems thinking can increase productivity and solve recurring issues.How can I move into a systems thinking mind-frame?Taking a wider look at your organisation or team is the first step towards systems thinking.“Mentally stepping back and observing what is going on is crucial,” Paul explains. “Talk to people who are new to the organisation and who are not yet imbued with the culture and mental models that come with it – fresh eyes with different perspectives are critical.Paul also encourages leaders to have open conversations with teams: “Have a conversation with your team that explores their thinking, beliefs, mental models and values that inform how the team operates. Find out why they do things a certain way. Looking at other sectors and organisations with similar issues can also be a huge help.“Consider how success is measured in the organisation, as this often determines how people respond to different situations. There is a saying which goes, ’People will do what you ask them to do. Make sure you ask what you really want.’ What gets measured gets done. And over time, it creates beliefs (mental models) about what is the ‘right’ way to do the job.” Paul explains.What are some tips for systems thinking? The following, although not exhaustive, can provide some ways into addressing issues with a systems thinking approach:Identify a recurring problem in your team or organisation – look for patterns in results and people’s behaviour, individually and collectively.Look for interdependencies; how different parts of the system interact and affect other parts.Explore processes, performance measures and decision-making criteria to try and surface the team or organisation’s beliefs, values, and mental models (which is extremely challenging, involves many conversations and can prove the most fruitful).Do not expect easy or immediate results. Systems change usually involves many people, often with different agendas, to engage in dialogue and work together to achieve a common outcome. Is there an issue in your team that you can address using systems thinking? Share it with us in the comments below!

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