Thursday, July 2, 2020

Managers must actively listen: foundational skills

Managers need to actively listen

Almost every MBA or business school degree has units on communications, including spoken communication. A great deal of attention is lavished on learning how to give speeches and how to communicate ideas, but no time is given to a more important management skill: how to actively listen. 

(If a dog can listen attentively, why can't you? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public Domain.) 

If you're thinking of listening as a passive skill, you've got it wrong. If you think of it just as letting someone speak, you're mistaken. If you think of it as something you can just do, you've totally misunderstood it.

By actively listening, I mean understanding the true meaning of what someone says and not just the superficial content. I mean actively probing for the key underlying messages and feelings. I mean communicating back to the speaker that you've heard and understand what they have to say by your choice of gestures, noises, and responses.

By actively listening, you can understand what's really going on and earn trust as a manager. You can demonstrate empathy, respect, and the value you place on people. 

In the last few years, the 'fake it until you make it' business meme has done the rounds, meaning pretending to be something you're not so you can get promoted to be what you were pretending to be. Active listening is the antithesis of this approach; it's all about communicating genuine human warmth. You can't fake caring.

Listen without distraction

Our first listening lesson is the simplest: listen with undivided attention and communicate that your attention is undivided. This means no ringing phones and no beeping devices. Turn off or silence your phone or watch. Turn off or silence notifications on your computer - better still, close up your laptop or turn your screen away. 

If at all possible, you should sit close to someone without distractions or obstructions. If you have an office, get up from behind your desk so you can sit with the person without diversion. Sitting behind your desk communicates power, and it's even worse if your monitor even partially obscures your view. If you don't have an office, go to a meeting room where you won't be distracted. On Zoom or video conferencing, close down any distracting windows and look at the person only (not other computer windows or something else in your home office).

These things sound simple, but it's surprising how many people don't understand the basics of turning off distractions. If you want people to talk, you need to give them the right environment - and that means you have to take action.

Let's imagine you wanted to talk to your manager about a difficult situation at work. Perhaps you suspect you're the victim of sexual or racial harassment, or you've seen something in another department you think you should report, or you're unhappy with a colleague. Each of these situations is difficult for you to talk about and requires you to trust your manager. Now imagine when you finally screw up the courage to see them, they sit behind their desk fiddling with their phone, their computer pings every minute, and they keep on turning away to check their monitor. Do you think you would tell a manager who behaves like this something that's risky and that requires trust? Do you want to be the kind of manager your team trusts, or do you just want to just fake it? Being authentic requires effort on your part.

Just making time for people isn't enough. You have to understand what's expected of you and what you mustn't do.

Listening isn't problem-solving

One of the big mistakes managers make is slipping into problem-solving mode as soon as someone starts discussing a problem or issue. For people from a technical background, this is a comforting response to a difficult situation, after all, solving problems is what technical people are trained to do. But this might be the exact opposite of what the person wants. They might just want to talk through a difficult or disturbing situation and be heard. The other risk is, by offering solutions too soon, you might block more serious content. Sometimes, someone might come to see you with a 'presenting problem' that's relatively innocuous; they're seeing if they can trust you before disclosing the bigger issue. Before suggesting any solution, you should make sure you've heard the totality of what someone has to say. Your first goal should be making sure the person feels heard.

The biggest risk of active listening for managers

I do have to address one of the big risks of listening: role confusion. You are a manager, not a counselor. The art of listening as a manager is to know your limits and not try to be a cheap therapist. Remember, as a manager, you may have to use the performance management process on someone which may be next to impossible if the person is relying on you as a counselor. If you've allowed an unhealthy pseudo-counseling relationship to develop, you've put yourself in a career-limiting situation. At all times, you must remember you are a manager.

Listening leads to acting - sometimes

There's another key difference between a therapist and a manager. As a manager, you need to act on what people tell you. You don't need to act all the time, sometimes people need to vent and your role is solely to listen and communicate you've heard what they have to say. But on other occasions, you have to act - in fact, acting is the ultimate in active listening: 'I've heard what you have to say and I'm going to do something about it'. If you do nothing in response to what you hear, ultimately people will do something themselves: they'll leave and go somewhere else.

What's next?

I'm going to blog a bit more about listening. I'm going to focus on some micro-skills you can use to communicate you're listening, and provide examples and exercises you can follow. These blog posts are not about faking listening, they're about being human and about your role for your team - demonstrating why you're a manager.


The best single-volume book I've come across that covers the skills of active listening is "Swift to hear" by Michael Jacobs (ISBN: 978-0281052608). The book is aimed at people involved in pastoral care, but it focuses on technical skills, making it a great resource for anyone who needs to listen attentively.

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