“Listening is the greatest compliment”
Bob Proctor, Wealth Coach
I agree with Bob Proctor – listening is the greatest compliment you can give someone. Your full, undivided attention.
You know when someone is not listening to you. How does it make you feel?
As a manager there will be loads of times when you need to listen to people. One2Ones, meetings, interviews, ad-hoc chats. Being the manager that listens will set you apart. Being the employee that listens will set you apart.
Success in communication is not just about transmitting information, it’s about receiving it too. Many managers tell their teams that they’re always available for a chat, or don’t hesitate to book a meeting, or grab me any time – only to not accept the invite, not listen or start talking about themselves.
Good managers listen. And respond.
But were you ever taught to listen? I remember my teachers telling me to listen more, but I don’t recall being taught how to do it.
And there’s a huge difference between hearing and listening. They are two different things.
Here’s how to become great at actively listening. The following is covered in-depth in my communication workshop. You can find details of the communication workshop here.
Turn and Face
If you see a child walk up to someone and ask them a question you often see the adult give that child their full attention, indicated quite clearly by the adult turning their whole body to face the child. Yet, if you watch an employee walk up to their boss (or anyone else) in the office, you’re likely to see the boss continue to read their screen, or shuffle their papers, or read their book.
The first step to being an active listener is to turn and face, and give full attention to the person you are listening to.
Try it. Next time someone comes up to your desk, turn your whole body to face them. Ignore your screen, or paperwork or book. Turn and face. And smile.
Be prepared to listen
Listening is NOT passive. It is an active activity and hence requires you to be present. To be present, you have to be active and ready to listen.
I talk a lot about the listener doing most of the communication and it being your job to engage the listener, however, the listener must also share that responsibility.
Great conversations happen when both parties are taking responsibility for listening and talking.
To do this you must try to always think about what they are trying to say, not how you are going to react or what you’re going to say next. You’ve been speaking to these sorts of people – they are always trying to jump in. Don’t do that. Train yourself to wait.
Sometimes you might need some time to get yourself physically or mentally prepared to listen. Let’s say you’ve got a very delicate conversation booked in with a direct who’s having a hard time. That requires you to be on top form – alert, ready, listening.
Some conversations are high in emotion. Acknowledge emotional states. Respond (not react) to them. Be aware of emotions and if needed – call quits on that conversations and get a break, or change the topic, or suggest an alternative path. If things get super heated – sometimes cooling off is needed.
A good listener acknowledges their own emotional state – is now a good time? Am I on top form? Should I postpone? They also become really good at reading other people’s emotional states and responding to them.
I was once stuck in a conference track in what was one of the world’s most boring talks. Instead of getting mad and angry that I’d chosen the seat in the middle of the row, in the middle of the room, I decided to just listen and be interested.
I made a mental note “Be interested. You might learn something”. You know what? It was ok in the end. I would never sit through a talk by this person again, but I got through it.
The same thing goes when active listening. There are meetings, conversations and discussions you don’t need or want to listen to. But that’s not the point. Sometimes people just need you there, or an ear to bend, or to know that their manager has got their back.
If you show your disinterest – you’ll show you’re not listening. Be interested. Tell yourself it’s interesting – show the other person that you’re interested. It may be fake, but it shows interest. The chances are you’ll become interested anyway.
Empty Your Cup
Bruce Lee talked about “emptying your cup” so that it could be refilled. He was talking about letting go of your own belief that you know everything and opening up to the possibility of learning from others.
This is sound advice when listening to someone else. How many times have you been in conversations or meetings and interrupted someone because you “already know what they’re about to say” and been way off the mark? They were actually heading towards saying something else, or they had a new angle on it, or knew more than you gave them credit for?
I found myself, as a manager, doing this a lot – I had to train myself to stop. It’s still hard to stop myself jumping in.
Sometimes the conversation becomes about you, your team, your plans, your behaviours. It can be easy to jump straight to being threatened by this and defensive. Feedback is hard to take – and not everyone delivers it with grace and care.
I suggest you take the feedback on board. digest it, thank them for giving you guidance on how to get better – and move on. When listening to others try to control your defensiveness – it rarely leads to a positive conversation.
And be open to learning from anyone in the organisation, at any level.
Piece it all together
Don’t just listen to facts and snippets of information. Piece it all together to form the main idea.
Not everyone is a good communicator in the workplace so hold fire and piece the main thread together. The main point of which might be the last word they say. Ever had that when you’ve interrupted someone, and they’ve said “yes – if you’d have let me finish – I was about to say that”. Let them say it.
Wait for them to finish before jumping in.
After they have finished, take a moment and repeat back to them what they have said, but in your own words! You should be able to convey the message back them in your own words – to their satisfaction. If you can do that – you have listened. It’s the acid test.
Critical thinking is a skill missing from many workplaces. “Yes” people are common at all levels of the organisation – people who say yes to everything. Strategies that will never work can make it from idea to implementation to failed project without a single person asking “does this make sense?”.
Good manager are critical thinkers. And active listening requires active critical thinking.
- Is what they have just said always true?
- If they claim it is always true, then wouldn’t that make the opposite of it always false?
- Can I think of a time when what they said was not true?
As you listen, be questioning and thinking. In order to think critically, you must take in all of the details – you must actively listen.
Active listening requires your attention. You must resist distraction. You must focus.
Ever been speaking with someone who keeps checking their phone? Been in a meeting with someone who is on their laptop? Even been speaking with someone who keeps looking around and behind you? Annoying right?
Avoid distractions. If you cannot ignore distractions, make an excuse and rebook the meeting, move to a quiet room, or apologise and focus.
Listening is the greatest compliment. So when you’re not listening….what are you doing? Insulting?
Sometimes you need to make notes. Sometimes it would be rude to make notes.
As much as you actively listen, you’ll still not remember everything. Taking notes can be good.
Make all notes 60 days proof. Learn shorthand. Make up your own shorthand. Don’t let note-taking take you away from listening. Don’t use a laptop and keep as much eye contact as possible. Give feedback that you are still listening. Nods and other gestures, repeating words back, “yep”, “I see” etc.
Listening requires being mostly silent and taking on board what someone else is saying. Listening for those main points and bringing it all together. But it also calls for a response. Not a reaction, but a response.
What that response is, depends on what is being talked about, but it could be kind words to re-assure someone, or guidance on how to move forward, or more questions to clarify anything. Or it may be you need to put a plan together, or organise a meeting, or put together more training sessions. Or it could be that you just sit quietly and give them some space. Trust me, nothing prepares you for when a direct report breaks down in front of you.
Learn to respond. Not react.
If you are actively listening you are paying attention, you are giving someone your time and awareness. You are paying them a compliment. You may learn something. You will be a better manager.
The more you listen, the more people will want to talk. This is both a good and bad thing.
As a manager you have to be listen and respond. But you’re not a counsellor, or a social worker, or a therapist. Listening is good. It pays to become good at it. But it also pays to know when someone needs professional support too. Speak to your friendly HR team if you’re worried you’re doing more than just listening to everyday work issues.
You can find details of the communication workshop here.
Some of the guidance was put together from:
Communication – Nicki Stanton
Executive Presence – Harrison Monarth