What Great Bosses Know about Good Listening

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It’s often said that successful employees “have the boss’s ear.” But ears aren’t enough. They want your eyes, too, dear manager. And your full focus.

Simply put: If you want to be known as a good listener, here’s a short cut to success: Step away from the keyboard. Put down the BlackBerry. Turn your whole self in the direction of the person speaking to you. Look ‘em in the eye (but not continuously, that’s creepy).

I guarantee if you try those small steps, you will improve your reputation as a Boss with Great Ears.

I know because of the number of complaints I hear about multitasking bosses who tell staffers, “Go ahead, talk, I’m listening.” But the employees hear, “Here’s a fraction of my attention, that’s plenty.”

Employees don’t like it. And I don’t blame them. I also don’t blame good bosses who are trying to do many things at once. They’re probably overloaded themselves and feel it’s better to be accessible while otherwise engaged than to say, “I don’t have time for you.”

I DO blame managers who expect people to adapt to their quirks — like short attention spans, faulty time management or inscrutable priorities. Rank may have its privileges, but being rude and expecting people to endure that isn’t one of them.

Call me an eternal optimist, but I think the rude crowd is small. Most lousy listeners don’t intend to offend. And when they learn they’re seen that way, they’re humbled, hurt and open to change.

What else can they do besides disconnect from their electronic tethers? They can follow the lead of the managers whose feedback tells them they’re excellent listeners. Here are some tips good listeners have shared:

  • Pause whatever you’re doing. Make it obvious to the speaker that you are fully focused on him or her.
  • Check your body language. Are you inclined in the direction of the speaker or away? If someone snapped a photo of the two of you, what message would the scene telegraph? Tension? Distance? Engagement? Collaboration?
  • Resist the temptation to interrupt the other person, especially if he or she has just begun to speak. The exception, of course, is when you’re truly helping people by informing them that a problem has already been solved or a major worry or fear they’re expressing is groundless. But still, hear them out after your interruption, if they want you to understand their perspective.
  • Repeat what you heard. This is another solid gold way of getting credit for listening. If you can reiterate their thoughts, they know you’ve paid attention.
  • Reflect on their feelings. “Sounds like you’re pretty pumped about the assignment” and “It’s pretty clear you’re concerned about the timetable” let people know you didn’t just hear their words, you understood the emotions behind them.
  • Be upfront about how much time you have for a conversation. I’ve written this before: people routinely ask “Got a minute?” when they want at least 10 or 20. If you are busy, it is better to tell them, “I have a minute, but I bet you deserve more. Unless this is urgent, can we meet at 2 p.m. so I can give you my full attention?”

Being a better listener doesn’t mean you have to give up control of your time or become a slave to windbags. It means developing a workable strategy for making yourself available and then giving people your full focus when you’re with them. The benefit: your staff members feel you treat them with respect.

Multitaskers aren’t the only lousy listener types: I can identify at least nine more. Have some fun with me as I introduce them in today’s podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about Their Ears”

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and everywhere.

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