Stop, Look, and Listen Up

ANY HOPE FOR SUCCESS in cultivating employees’ resilience (see People, O+F March 2003) depends on everyday managerial behaviors as much as or more than it does on formal training or the employees themselves.

Without a doubt, the most important tool for managers who strive to develop employees is the ability to listen thoroughly and with understanding. You cannot effectively coach, guide, or encourage without understanding employees’ circumstances, needs, and beliefs. And unless employees feel understood, they will resist being “worked on” by even the most well-meaning manager.

LISTENING LAPSES

Thoughtful, comprehensive listening is as critical in small, apparently inconsequential interactions as it is in formal meetings on strategic issues. But most of us don’t listen all that well or consistently.

Too many potentially important exchanges in the workplace happen under pressure, when people are stressed by their surroundings, or already feeling fearful, frustrated, or angry because of recent events. And managers have too much to do and little time to think or prepare. Much too often, listening on the job starts out badly and devolves into a stonewall or complete cutoff.

It’s hard to keep from being distracted by interruptions when someone asks for a moment of your time. The ongoing hustle and bustle, combined with your own thoughts about what you need to accomplish both in this interaction and before the end of the day, occurs just when another person needs to feel listened to. And he or she is probably paying extraordinary attention to what you say, how you sound, how you look, and whether you seem to have understood.

If you want to ensure that your own listening is in the acceptable range, you’ll need to decide that listening is a goal in itself as well as a management tool. Commit to practicing listening in all your interactions — whether it’s a first meeting with a trainee or a casual exchange at the water cooler with a tenured staffer. Practice off the job counts too.

Think about listening and plan for it every day. Perhaps you need to exercise greater patience, or remain neutral until you understand what is being discussed. Or maybe there’s a difficult person or topic needing attention that you’ve been putting off. Here are several techniques to consider and try.

  • Recognize that you don’t know what employees want to talk to you about, or what they will specifically say. Your assumptions, even if frequently right, will be wrong just often enough to reduce your credibility and create the impression that you think you know it all.
  • Intentionally ask open-ended questions. They create opportunities for engaging more deeply, collecting more information, and demonstrating your sincere interest.
  • Put aside your preoccupations. Instead of snapping out an answer to someone’s question immediately, consider, if only for a moment, if there is some larger issue or concern underlying the question: Why would someone ask about this? Pausing momentarily for reflection instead of answering right away increases the chances that the other person will offer additional and more illuminating information. In addition, if you can resist making your mark on every conversation, your pause may give others an opportunity to propose and refine solutions.
  • Use your eyes as well as your ears to listen so that multiple senses can absorb and analyze content. Does the conversation you’re hearing match what you see? If an employee says yes, but her head motion, crossed arms, or stiff position say no, try working through the conversation again, with additional prompting and demonstrations of understanding.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I listening the way I want to be listened to?” (Are you shuffling papers? Do you wait for the other person to finish?)
  • Have a tendency to cut people off or shut them down inadvertently? Apologize as soon as you realize you’ve done it. Look for warning signs: sudden silence, sudden concurrence without enthusiasm, or outright avoidance. If possible, explain what interrupted your listening. Confirm what you’ve understood so far, and start fresh from the point where you stopped listening.
  • Work on increasing your empathy, not your sympathy. Try to perceive what others are feeling and to understand the way they’ve sized up a situation. Identify the specific ways that their views differ from yours. Give them room to feel a particular way under particular conditions, even if it’s not the way you yourself would react. Empathy will help you gain a clearer understanding of what they want and why, so your response will be better informed.
  • Acknowledge what you’ve heard; express understanding without making any promises. It’s unlikely another person will feel heard unless you show respect and consideration.

And a few words of advice about disagreements. Telling people they are wrong puts them on the defensive and stops any useful communication before you’ve had a chance to hear all the facts. It may be that once you’ve understood them fully, you’ll intuit how to present your evidence in a way that makes its own case. But trying to force others to embrace your point of view will only shut them down, even if they appear to agree with you.

Get used to having to cover the same ground several times. Employees often need to repeat their concerns more than once before they believe that you’ve heard them. Keep your cool and be prepared to tell the truth (we’ll cover how and why in a subsequent column).

LIZ KISLIK, president of Liz Kislik Associates, can be reached at 100 Merrick Rd., Suite 505E, Rockville Centre, NY 11570, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

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