Ten Lousy Listeners And What We Can Learn from Them

September 2, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Some simple facts of management life:

  • People prefer to work for bosses who appreciate them.

  • People like to feel their ideas matter.

  • People don’t always feel they are heard at work.

That’s why I always enjoy hearing about newsroom leaders whose staffers give them credit for being “good listeners.” It is a talent that comes naturally to some people. Others really have to work at it. 

We shouldn’t assume “bad listeners” are bad people. They may be well-intentioned interrupters or time-challenged expediters. They may be unaware that their behaviors are leaving people feeling silenced. Those behaviors take many forms. Permit me to introduce you to:

Ten Lousy Listeners

1. The Multi-Tasker — Sure I’m listening. While I type. While I scan my computer screen. While I take just this one call. While I open this letter and page through these message slips. Now what were you saying?

2. The Party Animal — Do I have a minute? Sure. Come on in and tell me what’s on your mind. I know you’ve been trying to get in to see me. Go ahead, shoot. Hey, someone else is at the door. Come on in. We’re just chatting. Always room for one more!

3. The Sentence Finisher — Stop right there, I know exactly where you are going. No need for you to finish that thought, I will. Am I smart, or what? Don’t you appreciate a boss who is this efficient and supportive? Go ahead, tell me — I’ll finish that sentence for you, too.

4. The Debater — Whatever you’re saying, I’ll challenge. I’m only playing devil’s advocate, of course. I might be doing this to help you. But then again, I might not. How do you know? I do this to everyone, all the time. Keeps people on their toes.

5. The Ann Landers — Say no more. Here’s my advice. Take it. You may not have asked for my advice. You might just have wanted me to listen to you and let you vent. You might have wanted to figure things out yourself. But how can I prove I’m a leader if I don’t jump in with a ready answer? You’re welcome.

6. The Great Philosopher — Now, let me tell you what you really mean, but on a much broader, deeper, and meaningful level because it comes from me. I knew all this, by the way, without ever having asked you any follow-up questions about your thoughts or feelings. Why would that be important?

7. The Autobiographer — Ah, the story you just started brings something very important to mind: me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I will now tell you all about my experience, since it will be so valuable to you.

8. The Clock Watcher — I’m very good at face-to-face meetings. I look at your face, then the face of my watch, your face, watch face … I also fidget extremely effectively.

9. The Speeder — You want to talk? I’m really busy so can we make it fast? I’m on my way to a meeting. Walk along with me. Can you just send me an e-mail?

10. The Dropper — Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. I will keep them in mind. Unfortunately, I will forget to follow up with you promptly, or perhaps ever, leaving you wondering if you have dropped off my radar.

Changing Our Ways

You may have recognized yourself among the 10 lousy listeners. But more important is whether someone who works for you spotted you in the list. Sometimes, we’re just not aware of our bad habits until someone alerts us. And think about the courage it takes to deliver that little piece of news to your boss!

It also takes courage on your part to invite some feedback. So, would you consider circulating this column among your staff and inviting them to evaluate you as a listener? Could you ask them what you could do more of, or less of, that would make you a better listener?

In the meantime, here is some advice for each of the 10 lousy listeners:

1. Divorce yourself from distractions. Get out from behind your desk. Let that phone ring.  (Do you know how important people feel when they see you ignore a phone to stay focused on them?) If you are too busy to give someone your full attention, say so. It is better to reschedule a conversation than to insult someone by multi-tasking throughout it. If you are expecting an important message, explain that before beginning the talk. Apologize if you know a truly unavoidable interruption is likely.

2. Think before automatically inviting others into a conversation. I learned this the hard way from a middle manager in my newsroom who, fed up, finally asked me why everyone in the organization was more important to me than he was. What I thought was “the two of us managers giving attention to staff” wasn’t that at all to him. I was forever truncating his time with me, letting anyone in while he was in my office. I was wrong, I apologized, and we set up a signal system that made it clear when he needed undivided attention.

3. Curb your enthusiasm. I have found that most interrupters finish sentences because they are extroverts who love to think out loud. Extroverts get engaged and excited by the things they are hearing, and jump right in to make a connection. Problem is, they’re not always correct in their assumptions, but they are always interrupting. Force yourself to listen longer, like some of the best of your introverted colleagues. (Trust me, having studied Myers-Briggs personality types, I learned why so many introverts get great credit from their colleagues for being good listeners, and why so many extroverts have to work at it.)

4. Debate with care. Recognize that as a manager, your words carry great weight. Challenge carefully, using non-loaded questions. By that I mean, ask the kind of questions that aren’t insulting, or framed in ways that put the other person in a no-win situation. It takes talent to ask the kind of questions that make people think, and reach their own conclusions. Argumentative managers can simply come off as bullies.

5. Before advising, ask. Some staffers really do want your advice. But some just want to vent.  Some want to think through a problem with you. Listen to their concerns. Ask questions that let them suggest solutions of their own. After that, if you have what you think is good advice, ask the person if he or she would like it. Make certain your advice doesn’t come off as an order.

6. Stay grounded. Know when the conversation is better focused on the concrete or the abstract. You may have some theory to share, but know your audience well enough to know if this is the right time, place, and person for waxing philosophical. The more questions you ask, the more you’ll know about the other person’s needs.

7. Remember, it’s not about you. The person who wants to talk with you needs to remain the focus of the conversation. I’m not saying leaders should never illustrate their conversations with personal stories. Sometimes, especially when you reveal a great mistake, your personal anecdote can put someone else at ease. Just make certain you don’t make yourself the lead of every story. Keep things in perspective.

8. Put a clock in your line of sight. No kidding. Arrange your office so you can see the time without difficulty. This keeps you from insulting a speaker with your overt watch-glancing. If you are pressed for time, tell that to a person. When someone asks, “Got a minute?” there is no harm in saying, “I have only a minute right now. If you need more, let’s set up a good time.” And then keep the commitment.

9. Speed kills. If you have to have a quick conversation, make certain the other person is satisfied by it. If not, commit to a continuance. Be careful about asking people to ” C’mon, walk along with me.” One manager who often did so told me about a surprise response from a co-worker: “I’m not your dog.”  Make sure you are friendly and genuine, even when rushed.

10. Follow up. No matter how good a listener you are, you lose credibility if you fail to follow up on an issue raised in a conversation. It may be one of a long, long list of things you have to handle, but it is likely at the top of the other person’s agenda. Telling people when you will get back to them is a commitment worth making — and keeping.

One other important piece of advice: We all have colleagues and staffers who love to talk with us … sometimes for too long. We know people who repeat points they have made or who never seem to leave. Deal with those people honestly. Give them constructive feedback on their behaviors. Explain your desire to give them ample attention while meeting your other responsibilities. Develop your own signal systems that let them know they are repeating or running overtime.  

Explain that you’re learning to be a better listener. And you need them to hear you.