Building a Better Workplace Through Better Listening

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Think of times you’ve experienced the following scenarios:

You’re talking with another person, sharing your ideas or point of view. They nod their head as you speak, indicating they are tracking you. However, when they respond, it’s clear they had no idea what you were talking about.

You ask someone “Do you know what I mean?” after explaining something to them, and they assure you they do. Yet, when you ask them what they heard, what they fed back to you is not even remotely close to what you said.

Missing important information

You share an idea at a meeting, and within one nanosecond after you finish, someone else pipes up about a totally different topic…as if you hadn’t spoken?

Remember how it felt?

You might have felt annoyed or exasperated. You probably also got the message that what you were saying wasn’t all that important to them.

When people don’t listen, they don’t just communicate how unimportant the other person is to them. They also miss out on important information that could help deepen their relationships and enrich their lives.

“Not listening” in action

Here’s what happened at a seminar a while back.

I was working with a group of managers from the same company. One of the managers shared about an interaction he had with his direct report which left him questioning how he handled it.

He had this nagging feeling he could have responded better.

Two of his colleagues who had witnessed the interaction spoke up and said they thought he did just fine because the person “deserved it.”

Then a brave soul who had also witnessed the interaction, spoke up and said that he had felt uncomfortable watching the interaction. He then noted how his colleague had said he wondered if he could have handled it better, and asked “In the future, how do you think you would handle it differently?”

Not hearing what someone else is saying

The manager’s response didn’t answer the question; he merely recapped his initial report. His non-answer was then followed by some back and forth between the two men.

I noticed in their interchange that the manager didn’t seem to be hearing what his colleague was asking him. He demonstrated a pattern I’ve noticed often with people requesting help for a problem:

Upon receiving feedback, the person merely restates their problem, with no indication they heard the feedback.

Sensing that this was happening, I asked him if he could share with us his understanding of his colleague’s message to him.

His response? “There really was nothing else I could have done.”

“Are you serious?”

“Is that REALLY what you heard?” I blurted out.

Although perhaps not the ideal response, it was genuine. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

A bit taken aback by my shock, he stammered out a series of sentences that essentially communicated the take away message: “Well, yeah.”

I then asked the group what they heard. Someone immediately pointed out the two different viewpoints they had heard.

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Don’t change the topic – answer my question

As I reflected on his example of not hearing some really useful feedback, I found myself remembering another group I worked with, where 2-3 individuals repeatedly “answered” my questions with statements that had nothing to do with the question.

Instead, they “answered” by bringing up an unrelated issue that had apparently been on their mind.

After the third time this happened, I remembered something my good friend and colleague Fran Liautaud shared with me: We owe it to our seminar participants to point out counterproductive behaviors and how they might be costing them in their everyday life.

So when the third instance came up, I asked the person, and the group as a whole, to notice how much “non-listening” was going on. I asked them to notice that the “answers” to my questions were really not answers to my questions.

I then asked them to think about when they’ve been on the receiving end of “non-listening” behavior and how that feels.

Finally, I asked them to be more mindful of interactions they have in everyday life, and notice if they are truly listening.

Are YOU really listening?

Try it. Notice if you are truly listening, rather than:

  1. Looking attentive while thinking of other things.
  2.  Plotting your retort.
  3.  Feeling a mounting urge to share something that’s on your mind, and waiting impatiently for them to finish so you can talk.

Also, notice how rarely you experience someone truly listening to you; how rare it is for someone to be 100 percent focused on you and trying wholeheartedly to understand what you are saying.

Notice how wonderful it feels when someone actually does give you their undivided attention.

More to notice

Notice how wonderful it feels when the other person asks you meaningful questions, questions that could only be asked by someone listening intently.

Notice how wonderful it feels when the other person doesn’t try to rush you, either because they want to talk or look at their smart phone. Instead, they let you take the time you need to explore and share what’s on your mind.

Also notice how different it feels when the other person allows the spotlight to stay on you as you share, rather than responding “Yeah, I know what you mean…” and then shares their own experiences without ever returning to what you had been sharing.

As you notice these things, you will also notice that listening is a rare and special gift.

How about giving the gift of listening more often and noticing how others respond?

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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