Message to the Workplace: ‘Shut Up and Listen!’

Have you ever been talking to your boss, your spouse or anyone for that matter and you can tell they’re really not listening? When the listener isn’t the one who signs our paycheck, we are usually quick to say, “Are you listening to me?” Of course, people can’t retort to their manager, supervisor or leader, so they often walk away in frustration, knowing that they haven’t been heard and it’s likely their audience would proceed with his or her own plan or decision.

We often label this experience as a waste of our time, but the unskilled listener has also wasted his or her time as well. The problem is that typically people in leadership positions have learned some of the outward behaviors that indicate they are listening, but in actuality they are not. They assume that as long as they perform certain behaviors — eye contact, an occasional uh huh and a thank you for sharing — they’ve come through the encounter appropriately. Yet, they are the biggest losers in the situation because they’ve lost the opportunity to learn. Listening truly is learning, but active listening doesn’t mean acting like you’re listening.

One of the first things I learned as a budding psychotherapist was to listen. The reason is captured in the saying, “Talking is learning; listening is teaching.” While that is the opposite from what most people think, those who understand behavior change know that while talking is a relative high-rate behavior, the listener can actively respond (apply consequences) to what the person is saying, thereby changing the talker’s verbal behavior. Many studies in psychotherapy show that talk that results in the therapist nodding in agreement, saying “uh huh; how did that make you feel; or tell me more” resulted in more of that talk. If the patient talked about blaming others for his or her problems or made complaints about parental behavior and the psychotherapist looked at the clock, in another direction or showed other signs of disinterest, these behaviors eventually stopped.

Ram Charan, author and business adviser to CEOs and corporate boards, states in his article, “The Discipline of Listening,” that the ability to “empathetically” listen is a “central competence for success.” The problem with that advice is that it is very difficult to pinpoint precisely what behaviors constitute empathy. While empathy is generally thought of as the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, if you are unable to do that, trying is the wrong thing to do, as you can’t fake it. You are better off just being a good listener. Good listeners are hard to find. As a therapist, I often described my job as a “paid listener.” Most people would rather talk about themselves or their interests. A good listener is a good positive reinforcer, and that is the power of listening. Since managers and supervisors usually see their jobs as telling, directing, communicating, etc., they have to work against the reinforcers in the job to become a good listener.

Since active listening is central to changing behavior at work, below are some techniques that may help you become a good one:

  • Ask open-ended questions for more information (How do you suggest we improve the process?) or close-ended questions to confirm your understanding of key points (So you are saying that we can eliminate that step entirely?).
  • Paraphrase key points by summarizing and verifying. (“So your point is that if we delete step 2, it won’t adversely affect the quality of the product. Is that correct?”)
  • Acknowledge expressed feelings. (“I can tell that you are excited/upset/concerned about this.”)

People can also enhance their active listening acumen by doing the following:

  • Remove outside distractions. (Attending to constant interruptions, looking out the window, checking your smartphone, sending emails. Not only are these activities insulting to the speaker, they distract the listener from gaining any insight from the discussion.)
  • Allow enough time. (Please don’t look at your watch and announce, “You’ve got five minutes.” That’s a power play, not a listening gesture. If you don’t have the time at that moment, then set up a meeting for later, showing that you value that person’s time and input as well as your own.)
  • Listen before evaluating. (Avoid making early judgments and composing responses in your head while another person is speaking to you.)

This last piece of advice may be the most common hindrance to good listening skills, because it requires the empathy of thought mentioned by Charan. Even if by all outward appearances you are listening, if you have previously decided to reject an idea, emotion or opinion held by someone else, then you are probably forming your response/defense/retort or rehearsing it and missing the entirety of the speaker’s input. Avoiding this barrier to active listening requires self-discipline, which is also a learned behavior.

The word “discipline” may have many differing connotations, but a behavioral definition offered by Webster is “orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior.” This applies to the visible behaviors of active listening as well as to the invisible focus we require of ourselves which can be aided by eye contact, writing down points made and verifying them with the speaker, and becoming a source of positive reinforcement with words of encouragement and understanding. Long periods with no responses can be unnerving to a speaker (in my doctoral dissertation I discovered that most people cannot tolerate 20 seconds of silence), so verbal acknowledgement of points made is fine, but when compelled to put in “your two cents worth,” remember that silence is golden. It is best to let the other person break a silence.

After all, becoming an active listener is not necessarily purely an act of empathy — although empathy is certainly a trait of an effective listener. Developing such a skill can put you on an upwardly mobile career path. In fact, companies such as General Electric list “listening” as one of the most desirable traits in potential leaders, lending new meaning to the phrase, “Shut up and listen!” Active listening is a rewarding skill in that those with the ability to do so also have almost limitless opportunities to tap into and apply learning gained through the knowledge, experience and viewpoints of others. In so doing, and acting on that learning accordingly, they also become truly trusted, sought-after and successful leaders.