Quick! Who’s the best manager you’ve ever worked for? Picture him or her in your mind. Now think: what made you pick this person?
So who was the worst manager you’ve ever had? Do the same thing: visualize working for this person while thinking about what made them so horrible.
I can’t guarantee it, but if I had to guess, one of the key differences between these two was that the good manager actually listened to you, while the bad one didn’t.
Am I right?
When the good manager listened to you, how did it make you feel? Valued? Validated? Respected? Trusted? Confident? Engaged? Empowered?
How did the bad manager make you feel most of the time? Probably the exact opposite. So if you’re a manager — or even if you’re not — look at yourself in the mirror and ask: Am I a good listener? More importantly, if you asked other people that question, what would they say? If you’re interested in becoming a better manager, it’s time to refresh your approach to listening.
Good Leaders Listen
Early in my career, I temped in the PR department of a major Hollywood studio. It was a dreary existence, spent mostly answering phones and making copies. If you’ve ever temped, you know what that’s like. One afternoon, one of the department managers came running out of her office, frantically looking for a PR rep to proofread and edit an urgent press release.
Finding the room empty (with the exception of yours truly), she barked: “Where the hell is everybody?” I told her that they were all out to lunch, but that I’d be more than happy to take a crack at it. Without even looking at me, she snarled: “You can’t do this, you’re just a temp.”
I tried to tell her that I had a B.A. in English, a Master’s degree in Communication, and a year’s experience working for a top New York ad agency, but she didn’t have any interest in listening to me. She left the press release draft on my desk, told me to give it to the first PR rep I saw, and dashed out to her lunch meeting.
The press release was a mess. It was badly written, poorly structured, and filled with grammatical and spelling errors. With nothing else to do, I took it upon myself to re-write it.
When one of the PR reps got back, I explained the situation to him and gave him both the original copy and my revised version — without telling him I was the one who revised it. Shortly thereafter, they sent out my version as the finished copy without making a single edit. No one ever knew – or asked – who did it.
This department was always short-handed and in need of help. They had a talented resource at their disposal, but they never took advantage of my services, simply because they never bothered to listen.
A week later, I was hired to work as an assistant to a writer/producer at Disney. On my first day on the job, I asked him what made him hire me over three other candidates with stronger resumes. His response: “During the interview, you asked really good questions. And you seemed like a good listener. I need someone who knows how to listen.”
Listening got me the job. Having a manager who listened to me made him a pleasure to work for. To be a better manager – or just a better human being – start by becoming a better listener.
8 Tips for Becoming a Better Manager
Look at the person: Make eye contact. Pay attention to facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. There’s an old saying that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. Management guru Peter Drucker once said: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” And that can only happen if we make the time, and take the time, to truly stop, look, and listen.
Inquire: Ask questions. Ask follow-up questions. Delve deeper. Seek examples. Use paraphrasing and summary clarification to validate understanding. When someone asks you a question, don’t just answer the question — care enough to answer the question behind the question. And when you listen to the response, listen to gain true understanding rather than just hearing the reply.
Show that you’re interested: When someone is talking to you, it’s important to demonstrate that you value the speaker as well as what’s being said. Put yourself in their shoes, try to see things from their point of view, and listen with empathy. Interact with them one-on-one and make them feel like they’re the most important person in the room.
Treat the person with respect: Even if you disagree with what they are saying, and may not even like the person, show respect for their viewpoint, and express appreciation for their candor and their contributions. Seek to connect with them on a human level, and on an equal level – person-to-person – even if you are more knowledgeable and/or more senior in the organizational hierarchy. If you treat them with dignity and respect, you will earn their trust and respect.
Encourage the other person: Engage them in dialogue and empower them to speak their mind without hesitancy, self-censorship, or fear of retribution. Create an environment of exchange, openness, honesty, self-disclosure, and trust.
Never make the person regret that they opened up to you: Once you lose trust and damage or destroy the relationship, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Maintain confidences and confidentiality. Don’t gossip or talk behind anyone’s back. And follow the “Vegas Rule”: What’s said here, stays here.
Understanding is the key: It’s not enough to simply hear what’s being said; you must get at the meaning and intent of what is being said. Listen not only with your ears, but with your eyes, your brain, your head, and your heart.
Put your smartphone down: This might be our biggest obstacle to true listening. We’re so busy with our devices that we ignore the people right in front of us. Is the person on the other end of your digital communication more important than the person or people in the room with you? If not, put the phone down. Be present. Be here now. And give the person speaking to you your undivided attention and focus. Isn’t that what you would want?
Managers sometimes feel that they need to have all the answers. Or that they already DO have all the answers. So they do all the talking and forget the crucial importance of listening. Because what if someone asks them a question and they DON’T know the answer? To be that open and vulnerable, and to connect with other people on a personal level, is to take a risk that requires humanity and courage.
But as Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”