I’m going to admit it. I don’t always listen effectively to everyone who speaks to me. There…I feel better! I got it off my chest.
Before you judge me too harshly, you should admit that you don’t either. As a spouse, a friend, a parent, a manager, it is difficult to consistently give everyone your best attention. Everyone struggles with it, if they’re being honest. It’s normal but, as with anything, we can make progress, only if we want to.
Let’s briefly explore some of the barriers we experience and I’ll share some of my suggestions on how to deal with them.
1. We don’t really believe it matters.
A consultant I worked closely with once said to me, “Listening is the single greatest act of compassion one person can offer to another.” And who would not wish to feel that kind of care? When you speak, don’t you wish people to care about what you’re saying? Communicating is a creative act of giving to another. If you gave someone a gift, and they didn’t even acknowledge it, how would you feel? The Golden Rule applies here: treat others as you wish to be treated.
When you give people your best attention, you improve your relationships, you increase trust, you give people freedom to be their authentic selves. You demonstrate tangibly that you accept them.
This doesn’t mean however, that you have to agree with everything that they are saying!
Beyond this, there is the clear benefit of efficiency. As a conscientious personality-type, this resonates a lot with me. I hate wasting time! Effective listening in the workplace leads to more productive work, and engaged employees. Things don’t have to be talked about multiple times because meanings and intentions are not clear. We get it right the first time. People end conversations with clarity, not with frustration.
2. We don’t really have the skills and frankly just don’t know how.
Some of us have never heard of paraphrasing, or reflecting, or body language or tone modification. We don’t know what we don’t know. We learned how to listen from the people who raised us, and perhaps other adult models along the way. And honestly, some were not always the best models. You can learn how to listen better—it is a skill.
3. We are too tired.
There are days we come to work and we have not slept well, we don’t feel well, or honestly, we stayed up a little too late for our own good. A tired mind doesn’t listen well. For some of us, the best thing we could do for our careers and our interpersonal relationships is to get a good night’s sleep. Eliminate whatever it is that makes it hard for you to rest, so you can come to the office and bring your best listening ears. Your staff will notice the difference.
If you find yourself in a meeting and you know you are just too tired, at least you can acknowledge it. That goes a long way to people being patient with you. Faking it won’t really help and you are going to miss important information anyway.
4. We are under a lot of stress or anxiety.
“Deer in the headlights.” “Lights are on but no one’s home.” We have funny expressions to describe what happens when we feel stress or anxiety and just fail at good two-way communication. The best we can do sometimes is just hunker down alone until we deal with whatever is stressing us out and resolve it. If that is just not possible, I recommend prepping mentally for meetings and using some relaxation techniques that work for you. Work at pausing and intentionally entering meetings in a calm state of mind. Take some deep breaths. The goal is to focus on the moment and the person in front of you. And just like #3 above, acknowledging our state of mind can go a long way to gaining some patience from others.
5. The speaker is not getting to the point, or rambling, and we want to speed it up and move on.
This is a particularly difficult issue if you are a dominant or conscientious type of communicator. Our type wants communication to be relatively concise, meaningful, and efficient. As a manager, you are going to have to judge whether or not the act of listening and the conversation are beneficial in that moment. If it isn’t, it is OK to politely bring it to a close. However, there is a clear benefit to letting go of the drive for efficiency, and giving an employee space to vent or explain in their own way. We all do not communicate the same way, or with the same speed.
There is a balance to be maintained in supervision. Highly relational-type employees need to tell stories and be heard, too. Some people are just more verbal than others and some take longer to get to the point. The “journey” is what matters to them!
I watched a manager approach an introverted marketing intern. She walked up with no greeting, and shoved a paper under her nose. “Can you make this chart in Excel?” The intern was caught off-guard, needed to ask questions but could not get them out. She just stuttered, and finally got out, “I don’t think so.” I knew she could make the chart but the manager overwhelmed her. The manager was not ready to listen and dialog due to her own stress levels.
For those who struggle with exercising boundaries, there is no rule that says, I must give my full attention any and all times to everyone who wants it. You have permission as a supervisor to shelve a conversation for a later time as long as you acknowledge it. You also have permission to re-direct a conversation if it is beneficial to everyone. The danger is in overusing your permissions.
I am certain we would all do well to be prepared to listen a lot more often than we currently do.
6. We have a one-way agenda and are not getting what we wanted.
As a manager and a leader in my organization, I’m providing direction to my team. My communication can often be directive and this is required of me. But even when I am providing direction, I need to tune in and listen to what others are saying in response. No manager has all the answers.
By listening carefully to others, we give them a chance to influence us, to generate new ideas, to redirect plans and processes in fresh directions. This increases innovation, creativity, and a sense of autonomy for team members.
A wise person knows that the best ideas are often built on the ideas of others. Listening allows ideas to get into the air, even if they don’t ultimately land anywhere firm. If you are pushing an idea or agenda, manager or not, and you are getting excessive resistance, that is a sign that you need to slow down, ask some questions, and listen more carefully to your team members. If I’ve made anything clear at all here, I hope you see that managing others and communicating effectively is a delicate balancing act.
Wisdom is knowing when to speak powerfully and knowing when to listen with your best attention.