The Best of Intentions: Why We May Not Be Listening Even When We Think We Are

Every leadership training workshop mentions listening. “Good leaders are good listeners. You should listen more.” And so forth. Most of us think that we are pretty good listeners, at least when we really need to be. In fact, many organizational leaders try to do a good job of listening but in many cases sabotage their own efforts with bad habits that they have learned over a lifetime.

Here’s a short true/false pop quiz:

  1. When an upset team member comes to me with a problem, humor is a good way to ease the tension.
  2. Most team members who come to me with problems just need a little reassurance.
  3. Team members come to me with problems only when they need a little advice.
  4. When a team member comes to me with a problem, the only way to find out what he or she needs is to ask questions.
  5. When a team member shares problems with me, I try to analyze what’s wrong and give her/him some suggestions.

If you answered “true” to any of these, you may be sabotaging your listening. There are barriers to listening that few recognize. Because we know our own motivations and intentions, it is sometimes hard to accept that our best efforts are not working. Leaders are often surprised to learn that reassuring, asking questions, giving advice and the like are often not helpful responses when someone else–co-worker, team member, manager, supplier–has a problem. In fact, they are often major barriers–they can prevent the other person from taking responsibility for really trying to understand what is bothering them and doing the problem solving themselves.

Let’s say your team member sighs, looks dejected and says to you: “I’ll never make it! These new quotas at my job are ridiculous!” This is a clear signal that she/he is upset, distressed, has a problem and needs to be listened to and understood. It would be easy to say, “You’re a pro. I wouldn’t worry about it.” That is what’s called reassurance. Or by suggesting, “I think it would be a good idea to talk to your supervisor about this” (advising) or by asking questions like, “How many do you have to complete? When are they due? What steps have you taken so far?” Responses such as these, well intentioned as they may be, potentially do more harm than good. These responses do not communicate understanding or engage the person in the kind of problem solving that is more likely to lead to a resolution. Instead, they may cause him/her to feel frustrated, misunderstood, patronized, and unaccepted. In effect, these responses communicate: “It’s not okay for you to feel this way,” or “I’m not comfortable hearing that you’re upset so here’s how to get over it,” or “A more competent team member wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this situation in the first place.” While these are not the messages you may intend, they can often be interpreted in these ways. Our nonverbal communication carries considerable weight and we do not control the conclusions others draw about our messages.

communication active listening leadership trainingWhat is called active listening, on the other hand, is more likely to communicate that you understand and accept the other person’s feelings. It is also more apt to keep the responsibility for problem solving with the other person. (This process was first called “reflection of feelings” by the eminent psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers, who espoused it as the best way for psychotherapists to respond to their clients. In the early 60’s, Rogers’ student, Dr. Thomas Gordon, brought this skill into the mainstream by teaching parents how to active listen to their children in his Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) program and subsequently to business leaders in Leader Effectiveness Training (L.E.T.)).

You active listen by consciously suspending your own “agenda”, ideas and judgments and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. You pay complete attention to the other person, focusing on understanding their problem: both practically and emotionally. You then put into words your understanding of what you hear, leaving your own feelings and opinions out of it. Let me say that again: leave your own feelings and opinions out. Yes, I know easier said than done! But read on.

For example, your active listening response to “I’ll never make it! These new quotas are ridiculous!” would be something like: “You sound pretty upset” or “You’re concerned that they’re way too high,” or “The new quotas are making you really nervous.” Empathic responses such as these communicate to your team member that you understand and accept their feelings. Further, reflecting back what you hear encourages the flow of communication. Now the other can confirm that you heard accurately (or not) and move deeper into the problem. With continued on-target active listening, often s/he will experience relief, even catharsis. If you have experienced being deeply understood by another person, you know the sense of relief and well-being that comes as a result. As the emotional level subsides, the other has also set the stage for problem solving. They now have a much clearer picture of the real problem and are more likely to be ready to examine potential solutions, make good choices, and carry them out. The more often this happens, the more confident and independent your team members become. The less you have to worry about every little problem.

Active Listening in Leadership Training

Active listening is a Learnable Skill. Leadership training workshops that do a good job of teaching active listening can be very valuable. While listening with empathy sounds simple, it isn’t. Doing it well requires conscious awareness, strong intention and practice. Three different steps are involved:

  1. First, pay attention to the cues people with whom you live and work give to signal that they have a problem.
  2. When you see or hear those signals and decide to listen, avoid responding with one of the barriers discussed here. Thomas Gordon calls them, “Roadblocks to Communication: interrupting, suggesting, questioning, advising, reassuring (there are 12 categories of these barriers to avoid).”
  3. Then give full attention to the other person and reflect back to them what you hear them saying and feeling; if the active listening is off target, they’ll say so. and you can try again. If they feel understood, usually they will keep talking and often find relief from or resolution to the concern or problem.

You might be thinking, “I’m not a babysitter. My employees are adults. I shouldn’t have to hold their hands.” The reality is that organizations are systems of relationships. Every day, people are faced with adversity and problems and sometimes their logical, analytical problem solving skills fail them. This happens most often when their emotional level is elevated. Especially in today’s uncertain times, it is extremely important to remain vigilant to these kinds of problems. Rather than dismiss them or avoid them, the effective leader will learn how to deal with these emotions in a respectful and useful way. In order for our teams to be as productive and creative as they can be (and to keep our relationships strong and healthy), team members need to have the opportunity to vent, to talk through and solve problems that crop up.

Given an opportunity to be heard, people will often gain clarity and ultimately find an answer to what is bothering them and move forward–often with renewed energy and focus.

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