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How to Really Listen to Your Employees
by Ian Cook

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When you have a tough conversation with employees, do you want your staff to feel free to come to you with a problem that requires your help? And when they do, do you want to be clear on what the problem is? Do you want to save time by getting it right the first time? And do you want to communicate that you care?

Listening, along with asking questions, is a powerful tool in your relationship building kit bag. And, no surprise to you, of course, it works in all directions—with employees, peers, your own boss, and customers.

Now, listening isn't really about skills, although the approaches below are just that. Listening is about intent. If your intention is truly to understand the other person in a particular situation, you will most likely do a pretty good job of listening to him (or her).

That said, just as a reminder for all of us, here are six tips:

  1. Choose an appropriate setting. The busy corridor in your office or the middle of the plant floor is not appropriate if you want to listen to an employee—actively. You seek out a place where you will not be disturbed, perhaps an office or closed room. Hold any phone calls. By making the effort to find a good place you are communicating to him that this is different from normal communication, that your intent is to give him your uninterrupted attention.
  2. Establish rapport. Be fully there for the other person. It's your job to attend to the initial rapport building, especially if he is nervous or upset. Adopt a relaxed, open body posture. Begin with a calm, reassuring voice. If you can detect his breathing pace, you might try to putting your breathing in sync with his. This builds connection at a subconscious level.
  3. Acknowledge and then "bracket" your own feelings about the individual. This is not the time to work out any latent prejudice, apprehension, prejudgment, or other unresolved feelings you may have towards this individual. By the same token, if you don't become aware of your feelings, they will create an emotional "static" that will prevent you from clearly listening to his message. By "bracketing," you imagine putting brackets around these impressions and moving them off to the side, out of your field of vision, clearing the channel between the two of you.
  4. Delay judging or blaming. As you listen, you will notice your own (silent) self-talk either passing judgments on his opinions, his apparent attitude or perhaps actions he has taken or is contemplating. If he is critical towards you or perhaps towards your operation, you may find yourself blaming him for "getting it wrong."
  5. Be aware of non-verbal messages. So much rich information is communicated through a person's voice, body, facial expressions, gestures, and so on. Make a concentrated effort to "read" these cues too. For example, if the individual abruptly sits back and tenses his fists, you might ask yourself, "What did I say immediately before he shifted?"
  6. Listen for the full message: both the content and the feelings. Most communications carry information (e.g., facts, figures, opinions, arguments) plus an emotional element (e.g., tension, anger, contentment, excitement). This is true even in ordinary workday interactions, especially when the communication takes place in the context of opposing opinions, anxiety over performance, quiet competition for promotions, and the like.

© Ian Cook, MILR, CSP, is a presenter, facilitator and executive coach. He works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team. To book Ian for a training seminar, team facilitation or keynote presentation, call toll-free at: 1-888-FULCRUM (385-2786) or e-mail: Ian Cook

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