Are You Listening? Why It Matters

It’s on every list

Business man and woman having conversation at tableCommunication skill is on just about every list that comes up when you’re looking for what makes a successful HR manager. When you think of communication, what comes to mind? My guess is that it usually has to do with what comes out of the manager’s mouth or finds its way into an email or memo, like “clear,” “concise,” “call-to-action,” “organized.”

What about listening?

Yep. “Listening” comes up on about every list, too. Communication is at least as much about listening as it is about speaking. In her article about the importance of listening in business organizations, professional writer Janice Tingum lists 5 outcomes of good listening in an organizational setting:

  1. Gain information – provides what you need to make good decisions
  2. Develop trust – helps employees collaborate on projects that maximize the strengths of all
  3. Maintain reputation – avoids not responding to customer needs and increases connection with business partners
  4. Reduce conflict – reduces misunderstandings and helps avoid feelings of mistreatment
  5. Motivates employees – increases understanding of what is rewarding for each employee, what interests them. When an employee feels heard, they are more likely to be engaged.

Listening with more than your ears

In order for the words you say to matter to those you are addressing, what you are talking about must matter to them. Understanding what that is requires listening skills. Here’s a non-work example. Imagine an avid hockey fan whose team scored a dramatic win last night. He runs into a friend at the grocery store who tells him that his work schedule is overwhelming. Mr. Hockey nods and offers a few mmm-hmmms as his friend provides some details. But what he’s really thinking about is the amazing shot that won the game.

The friend stops talking, and the hockey fan seizes the moment: “Did you see the hockey game last night? Two overtimes and the winning shot came with just over a minute to go.”

His friend walks away feeling unheard, and Mr. Hockey rolls his shopping cart down the aisle wondering how his buddy could not be excited about such a great win for the home team.

The problem: Mr. Hockey wasn’t listening. Sound waves vibrated his eardrums but not his heart.

Empathetic listening

diverse group of business people at team meeting listening closelySteven Covey had this to say about empathetic listening back in the late 80s in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Nothing has changed:

When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel…

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.

How it looks

If the hockey fan were an empathetic listener, he would have forgotten about the game and focused on his friend. Mr. Hockey would have paid attention to the tone of his friend’s voice and body language. He would have begun to see through his friend’s eyes and had some sense of the frustration and discouragement he was feeling.

And when his friend had finished talking, Mr. Hockey might have responded with a sincere recognition of the situation: “I’m so sorry,” or “I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.” Maybe with a question: “Is there anyone at work you can talk to about it?” “Or an offer of support: “If you’d like, we could go to Coffee Café and talk about it.”

Hockey scores could wait for another day or a different audience.

While this scenario occurs in a grocery store, the impact of poor listening skills that it demonstrates is just as damaging in an office.

Listening promotes teamwork

hands of business people sitting around a black table with chalk puzzle pieces, arrows, and the word In order to work as a team, to be a good coach and mentor, or to address problems as they arise, managers must be in tune with their employees and be aware of what matters to them and what challenges they face. They should model empathetic listening. In its 5-year research project taking a look at its own teams (Project Aristotle), Google determined that the most important fact in creating effective teams was how the members interacted, and how they communicated with one another.

Engaged employees

When employees know they are heard, they are more likely to feel connected to the organization. Good listening helps create the sense of psychological safety that’s critical for a healthy work culture. In a safe place, everyone feels free to offer ideas and honest feedback. Empathetic listening engenders trust and the sense that one is respected and has something to contribute.

How does “listening” rank on your “Great Manager” checklist?

We’d like to help

Delphia Consulting offers free live webinars, recorded webinars, and information on Sage HRMS HR Actions, a web-based paperless form solution that can help automate your HR and streamline communication. Visit our website or give us a call at 888.421.2004. We are happy to listen to your needs and see if we might be part of the solution.

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Mary van Balen
Mary van Balen
Technical Writer at Delphia Consulting
Mary van Balen is based out of Columbus, Ohio and is a writer for Delphia Consulting. Mary contributes to the Delphia blog on Human Resources issues and Delphia Consulting and Sage product related updates.