#192 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 12           December 1995

The Lost Art of Listening
by Michael P. Nichols, Ph.D.

Dr. Nichols is professor of psychology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.  He is author of The Lost Art of Listening (Guilford Press, New York, 1995), from which this article is adapted.

“Why won't he even listen to my idea?”  “Why am I cut off before I provide the whole story?” How many times have you been frustrated by someone not listening to what you have to say?  How many times have you frustrated others by not listening to them? 

We tend to think that listening is the same as hearing; but listening really is being alert to those situations in which the person you’re with needs to be understood.  Listening problems can be serious, not only at work, but with family and friends.

Many times we jump in to say what's on our minds--before we've even acknowledged what the other person has said--short circuiting the possibility of mutual understanding.  Speaking without listening, hearing without understanding is like snipping an electrical cord in two, then plugging it in anyway, hoping somehow that something will light up.  Most of the time we don't deliberately set out to break the connection.  In fact, we're often baffled and dismayed by a feeling of being left sitting around in the dark.

Good Managers are Good Listeners

Managers are expected to lead and direct the people under them.  Unfortunately, people are promoted because they were good at the jobs they were doing, not because they've proven themselves as managers.  In fact, according to the Peter Principle, people tend to advance until they reach their level of incompetence.  As a result, many executives and managers pay more attention to the product than to the people producing it--to the detriment of both.

Effective managers are proactive listeners.  They don't wait for members of their staff to come to them; they make an active effort to find out what people think and feel by asking them.  The manager who meets frequently with staff members keeps informed and, even more important, communicates interest in the people themselves.

An open-door policy allows access, but it doesn't substitute for an active campaign of reaching out and listening to people.  The manager who doesn't ask questions communicates that he or she doesn't care.  And if he or she doesn't listen, the message is "I'm not there for you."  Even if a manager decides not to follow a subordinate's suggestion, listening with sincere interest conveys respect and makes the employee feel appreciated.

Communicating by memo or email--however witty or informal--doesn't substitute for personal contact, because it closes off the chance to listen.

Simply going through the motions of meeting with people doesn't work either.  The fake listener doesn't fool anyone.  Poor eye contact, shuffling feet, busy hands, and meaningless replies, like "That's interesting" and "Is that right?" give them away.  The insincere listener's lack of interest in the conversation betrays a larger problem:  lack of interest in the person with whom the listener is communicating.

Most people don't listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.  Even at work, where performance takes priority over relationships, listening carefully to understand the other person's point of view, before you even think about replying, is the key to productive communication.

It's important to realize that failure to listen isn't necessarily a product of meanness or insensitivity.  Anxiety, preoccupation, and pressure can undermine the skills of even a good listener.  The point is, really, that at work, as in every other arena of life, listening is important and may require a little effort.

Effective managers develop a routine in which communication time is an integral part of the job.  They meet with their staff and ask questions.  They don't react before gathering all the facts.  If they don't know what their people are thinking and feeling, they ask--and they listen.

What if Your Boss Doesn’t Listen?

If at this point we were to leave the subject of listening in the workplace, we would have fallen into the easy habit of reducing a complex subject to a simple formula:  thoughtful managers listen to what their employees have to say.  Where does that leave those who don't get listened to at work?  Feeling sorry for themselves.

When we don't feel heard by our superiors, few of us give up right away.  We write memos, we ask to meet with them, we try to communicate our needs and convey our points of view.  Then we give up.  Frequently, we complain to our coworkers and our family and friends.

Venting feelings of frustration with third parties rather than addressing conflicts at their source can take on epidemic proportions in work settings.  Sometimes it takes on the form of gossip, running down someone who's not present.

Letting off steam by complaining to sympathetic listeners about other people is a perfectly human thing to do.  The problem is that habitual complaining about superiors locks us into passivity, helplessness, and mean-spiritedness.  We may have given up trying to get through to them, but we certainly don't mind saying what we think of them--as long as they aren't within earshot.

I once worked in a clinic with six other psychotherapists, where everyone except the director went out for lunch together.  Guess what the main topic of conversation was?  The director and what a rigid guy he was.  And guess what the group did about it?  Complained regularly among themselves, as though they were a resistible force and he were an immovable object.

But, some of you might be thinking, my boss really is insensitive!  I've tried to talk to him, and he just doesn't listen.  I don't doubt it.  People aren't promoted because they're good listeners.  They get promoted because they're good workers, or maybe good talkers.  Moreover, positions of authority encourage the directive side of human nature, often at the expense of receptivity.  The mistake people make in trying to get through to unreceptive superiors is the same mistake most of us make in dealing with the difficult people in our lives:  We try to change them.  And when that doesn't work, we give up.

Instead, start by examining your own expectations.  What do you want, and how are you programmed to go about getting it?  Are you expecting to have your personal needs met at work?  Do you work hard and wait patiently for the boss to tell you that you're doing a great job, like a good little boy or girl?  Have you learned to try to get responded to by being clever rather than competent, or by being pleasing rather than productive?

Be Careful

Listening is important at work because it enables people to understand each other, get along, and get the job done.  But don't get too personal.  Don't let your compassion (or desire to be appreciated) allow someone to let talking about their personal problems interfere with work.  This may be happening if you're the only person he talks to or if she uses your sympathy as more than an occasional excuse for taking time off or for not getting work done. 

A good supervisor keeps channels of communication open--and keeps them focused on the task at hand--by asking for frequent feedbacks about how things are going (on the job).

"What do you like and dislike so far about working here?"

"Is there anything you think we should change to make things smoother?"

"How do you feel about...?"

Remember that it can be intimidating for subordinates to give criticism or make suggestions.  If you want them to feel safe enough to open up, reassure them that you appreciate their ideas.

"I'm glad you spoke up."

"Thanks for letting me know."

"I didn't realize...I'm glad you told me."

Listening to the people we work with isn't the same as becoming friends with them.  Many people worry that if we allow ourselves to get personal at the workplace, things might get sticky.  But those who think that effective teamwork isn't about listening (it's about getting things done) are wrong.  Without being heard we are diminished, as workers and as people.

In any group, especially one with important responsibilities, you may disagree with someone's point.  Should you just keep quiet, or should you speak up?  How should you speak up?

Keep in mind the difference between dissent and defiance.  Defiance means attacking the other person's position and making him wrong.  Dissent meant having the courage to stand up for what you think and feel.  It's the difference between saying "You're wrong" and "This is how I feel."  Clearly, a dissenting message is much easier to hear than a defiant one.  The listener is more willing and interested in hearing a dissenter's objection.  Someone who hears a defiant objection will tend to either ignore the comment or rudely be counter-defiant.  This is a common problem that tends to increase barriers between people, something you don’t want in a work environment where teamwork is necessary.

Careful listening is difficult and takes practice to improve.  Try harder to understand the other person’s perspective.  That takes an expression of caring enough to listen.

Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.  

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