Perusing the floor of a conference expo this June, I was struck by the spate of new companies and programs advertising agile thinking or agile learning methodologies.

People who’ve worked in the technology industry are likely familiar with agile project management, an iterative and collaborative development methodology characterized by short-term project sprints and project scrum meetings. But the rise of the term “agile” in the training and people development industry in the last few years is not necessarily connected to the project management methodology. Instead, it speaks to a growing need for individuals and organizations to be more adaptable, flexible and collaborative in their overall approach to work in an increasingly uncertain and rapidly changing environment.

The World Economic Forum’s 2018 “Future of Jobs” report uses the word “agile” eight times, as opposed to just once in the 2016 report. The word most frequently appears in the phrases “agile learner” and “agile workforce,” although the phrase “agile mindset of lifelong learning” also makes an appearance. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find a slew of definitions of “agile thinking” or “agile mindset” that center around the theme of being able to adapt, collaborate, and embrace a mindset of openness and learning.

In the context of communication, agile thinking is the ability to suspend your agenda in order to listen to others, understand and validate their perspectives without necessarily agreeing, and pivoting the conversation toward a collaborative solution for all parties.

In its 2019 report “The Global Skills Shortage,” SHRM reported that the top three missing soft skills in job applicants are:

  • Problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity (37% of applicants lack these skills).
  • The “ability to deal with flexibility and ambiguity” (32% of applicants lack these skills).
  • Communication (31% of applicants lack these skills.)

If human resources is struggling to find people with these skills, then it falls to talent development professionals to train them. As a learning and development (L&D) leader, how can you build the capacity for agile communication in yourself, your people and your organization?

There’s a simple three-step methodology for practicing these skills. The challenging part is coaching employees to apply the techniques properly and consistently. The need to use agile thinking in communication typically arises when employees and leaders present their ideas to a group and are faced with a tough question or objection. However, the framework is applicable in other contexts as well, including negotiations, performance reviews and difficult management conversations, team meetings, and board meetings.

Step 1: Pause to Understand the Other Person’s Perspective

Let’s imagine you’re presenting an important project proposal to your executive team, and someone raises an objection or makes a statement such as, “I don’t at all agree with this approach.”

Many people in this situation freeze, become defensive or panic, jumping immediately to why it is the right approach and how much time they spent considering all the alternatives. Instead of that adrenaline-induced reaction, the agile communication approach begins with pausing and seeking to understand the other person’s perspective. A simple open-ended follow-up question goes a long way toward solving this initial problem.

Train yourself so that your knee-jerk reaction in these situations is an open-ended question like, “Tell me more about why you think that” or, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”

Said with confidence and open body language, this response can be disarming. Often, people expect a confrontation, and when they are instead met with openness and understanding, the tone of the conversation immediately shifts.

In an ideal world, you would be able to meet beforehand with everyone who is attending an important stakeholder meeting to bring their concerns out in the open before the big day. However, sometimes, this “pre-meeting” isn’t possible. Pausing to understand can help with unforeseen challenges in any communication situation.

Step 2: Validate Their Perspective

With your pause, your question and your openness to listen to the other person’s perspective, you’ve already bought yourself time and earned a bit of goodwill. Now, it’s time to show that person you care, understand and value his or her perspective. You can do so by offering a few validating statements that indicate, “I’ve heard you, and I value your perspective.”

For example, after you’ve received an answer to your initial open-ended question, you might say something like, “I can see why you think a different approach would be better, and I understand now that your biggest concern is the impact this initiative will have on our bottom line next quarter.”

Once the other person hears these statements, you will likely see a shift in their tone and body language indicating that they feel heard and that they are more ready to hear what you have to say. Critically, validating someone else’s perspective doesn’t mean they’re right or that you agree with them (though you may). It simply means that you understand and value their perspective.

Step 3. Pivot Toward a Solution With “Yes, and…” Language

After validating the other person’s perspective, you’re ready to develop a solution. The biggest mistake people make at this point is to ruin all the goodwill they’ve built with the other person by using one word: but.

Imagine that the executive who challenged you is showing with her tone and body language that she’s more open to your perspective, and you say, “I can see why you think a different approach would be better, and I understand now that your biggest concern is the impact this will have on our bottom line next quarter, but I recommend…”

How did you feel reading that statement? Probably not great. How can you turn the “but I believe” into a more collaborative “yes, and…” transition? Some effective phrases include, “For that reason…,” “That’s exactly why…,” “What I’ve found is…,” or a short pause before moving directly into your own perspective and solution.

For example, you could say, “I can see why you think a different approach would be better, and I understand now that your biggest concern is the impact this will have on our bottom line next quarter. For that reason, I recommend…”

How did you feel reading this second version? Likely more open, calmer and ready to collaborate.

While they’re simple, when you and your colleagues practice these agile communication techniques, the trajectory of your organization’s communications immediately becomes more collaborative, more flexible and more solutions-oriented — everything employers and training professionals are looking to build in their people in our increasingly uncertain workplaces.

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