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Sure You're Hearing, But Are You Listening?

   By: Joe McKenna

Really listening to your employees shows them you value them and respect their opinions. Who knows, you might also learn from them.

You are at lunch with one of your co-workers, when he asks about the vacation you just returned from in Colorado. You say “It was great! We started to feel like we were really on vacation when we saw the mountains.” You take a breath before continuing to tell him about your exciting trip. Ooooops, too long. He jumps in.

“We went to Texas, you know the home of longhorn steers and President Bush” he says. “Six Flags was probably the most fun we've ever had. Billy rode every roller coaster…” and on he goes. Rather than really listening to you, he couldn't wait to jump in and tell you about his adventure. In fact, by asking you about your vacation, he was probably just creating a way to talk about his vacation.

The fact of the matter is that interruptions—intentional or not—are rude; they signal to the speaker that the listener is not listening or engaged. Casual chats about vacations are one thing, but when this happens in any business, it can be a problem. Think of this bad habit as “listening with your answer running.”

Take Time to Listen

Employee: “Hey boss, Got a minute? I've got some great ideas on how to improve our customer service. I promise I'll be brief.”

Manager: “I'm glad I ran into you. I was planning to stop by your office to find out what happened to the parts we ordered from Taft.”

Employee: “I've got Peggy working on it. We should know soon. Here are my ideas.”

Manager: “Wait a minute. Why did you ask Peggy? I asked you to do it. It's too important to delegate.”

Employee: “Okay, I'll go work on it right now.”

An excited and engaged employee just got de-motivated and became a less engaged employee. The manager didn't acknowledge his ideas for improving customer service in any way. Instead, she talked about what was on her mind, virtually dismissing his excitement.

The messages sent by the manager:

• My agenda is more important than yours.

• I didn't listen to you when you stopped me.

• You didn't do what I wanted you to do.

The messages heard by the employee:

• I'm not important.

• My ideas aren't valued.

• Management talks about delegation, but they don't believe in it.

Was there a better way for the manager to handle this situation so that both she and the employee could get their needs met? Certainly. She could have acknowledged the employee's request and asked him to bring it up at another time. The employee would have felt that his manager had listened and wouldn't have minded moving from his agenda to hers.

Keys to Listening

• Be intentional. To really listen, without your answer, idea, opinion or bias running, is hard. It means you need to be open-minded. Put what you think aside for the time being. Make a small sign that says “LISTEN” and tape it to your computer or bathroom mirror to remind you.

• Avoid distractions. For example, if you have a tendency to get distracted when others are talking, sit or stand where your view is restricted.

• Set time boundaries. Provide a reasonable time limit for your meetings, and stick to it.

• Avoid multi-tasking. Don't take phone calls, read or work on your computer unless necessary for the meeting. These actions are rude and shout “you are not important.” If the work is urgent, ask if you can reschedule after you've completed it.

• Clarify. Repeat what you believe the main message was. This creates an opportunity to make certain everyone is on the same page.

• Respond as appropriate. There are generally two main actions from a discussion or meeting: schedule a next action or simply thank the person for the information.

Learn to Listen

Studies show that more than 70 percent of workers feel they are mismanaged. Often, this is related to poor people skills, including poor listening skills on the part of managers. Listening is one of the best tools a manager has to coach and motivate employees. Listen to your employees' ideas, problems, training needs, ambitions and even personal issues. You don't always have to act. Sometimes just listening is enough.

The good news is that all businesses can provide its management with listening skills training. Effective listening, like any business skill, takes practice. The benefits to your business, however, can be profound and highly profitable.

Copyright © 2005 Joe McKenna, founder of The KENNA Company. Joe is an expert in the areas of employee selection, succession planning, executive coaching, communication skills and team building. He can be reached at (816) 943-0868 or Find Joe on the web at

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