Shut Up and Listen

I realized a few years ago that I wasn’t a very good listener. There was a running joke between my friends and family that I was a “yes, but” girl. If I waited for you to finish your thought, the next words out of my mouth were, “Yes, but …” Essentially, “Yes, but you’re wrong,” and I hadn’t been listening to what you had been saying, I was simply waiting to refute it. It’s not a good trait to have personally or professionally. Work is like dating, and think about how annoying a significant other who doesn’t listen is.

I’ve learned that listening takes work, and it’s a skill every generation needs, but one millennials especially seek in their bosses. It’s not one you think about often when self-reflecting, either. Do you think you’re a good listener? What tips do you have for others? Eric Wagner, author of â??Shutting Up.â??

I interviewed Eric Wagner, author of “Shutting Up,” and we discussed the importance of listening and whether it can be developed.

Let’s talk communication styles. How do millennials’ communication styles differ from those of their elders?

Wagner: They’re not as into the traditional forms of communication. Phone call? No thanks. Email? You’re kidding, right? They are all about texting and social media … communication 140 characters at a time. If forced to read email (as in a business environment), they want brief, important and to-the-point information.

Let’s talk more specifically about the importance of listening. Why is this skill often neglected?

Because talking is easy. Unfortunately, our instinct to speak, inject a comment or answer a question before it has really been asked is powerful. We get to hear our own voices and fill the room with our incredible knowledge. But too often when you think you’ve actually been helpful, you’ve actually thrown away a greater opportunity for some useful feedback, to develop a great new idea, or gather some useful feedback or helpful criticism. The most effective, respected managers realize that what they have to say is almost always far less valuable than what their subordinates have to say to them. At best, doing too much of the talking can quash the opportunity to build a trusted bond with a team member. At worst, it can be disastrous.

Can better listening be taught? How can you develop managers to be better listeners?

In my book “Shutting Up!,” I discuss several situations in which it is imperative for managers to let others do the talking … plus techniques to help managers actually do the shutting up. By using some of my tips, managers can actually improve their listening abilities. And, it’s important for managers’ bosses to help mentor them into being better listeners as well.

Simple 1-on-1 talks: Bite your tongue — literally. Sit on your hands. Or do anything to stop yourself from talking. Let the other person get it all out. And understand that even when you think they’re done, they’re probably not! Wait for it. Or, ask a probing question. Then, see what happens. Chances are, the real meat of the matter is a lot different than what you expected. Eventually the person would get to the real meat, and then you can handle the REAL question.

Assigning tasks: When you delegate, don’t just dive into the what, how, when and why of the job. Ask your workers what they know about it, if they’ve ever done it before, what they think about it, etc. If your team already understands what’s up, you’ll save everyone time and build mutual respect.

Responding to questions: Don’t let your workers off easy by feeding them all the answers. Why answer when you can get your employees to answer it themselves? Instead, ask them, “Well, what do you think we should do?” and guide them as they figure out the answers themselves. You’ll be amazed how fast your people grow into more effective, self-sufficient workers.

Don’t hijack meetings: Let everyone else get their ideas and thoughts out first before you inject your own. When you speak first, it’s too easy to push your team into going along with your ideas. Otherwise, you will bias them. You may find that your ideas are deemed “the best” even if it’s not so. But the best idea may not be yours.

Making estimates: Instead of telling your team how long they have to get things done, let them to tell you how long they need. When your people make the estimate, they will own it. And, you can expect that they will do everything in their power to come through as promised.

What kind of skills do you think Gen Y leaders are going to need to become better leaders?

It’s hard to be a good leader without having the respect of those around you — above, below and at your peer level. And respect can be achieved by being a good communicator, being ethical, doing what you say you are going to do and trusting your people.

How are they to gain these skills?

Hopefully, they will have a few great leaders of their own that they can use as role models. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to come by. That’s why my book is especially important to these folks. It covers hundreds of tips and tricks learned over a couple of decades of management experience. If someone can’t get the right individualized mentoring, the book can be a substitute.

Ladan Nikravan is a Chief Learning Officer senior editor. Comment below or email Follow Nikravan on Twitter at @LadanNikravan. You can also follow her on Google Plus.