When the Operations Manager, my mentoring client Julia, met two of her team to address a complex performance incident, I was present in an observer role. She’d estimated the meeting would take 15 to 20 minutes.
Ben and Allen (no actual names used here) responded well enough to Julia’s genuine curiosity, her clarifying questions and occasional paraphrasing to test and demonstrate her understanding.
10 out of 10 for that: she’d been working with me to improve those practices and was doing better than most managers. (More accurately, she’d become a vastly better listener than her peers.)
But Ben and Allen appeared wary and anxious throughout. They repeated themselves . . . repeatedly, in various ways, and seemed to be skirting around something unsaid. Julia seemed unsure of how best to direct the conversation.
After 50 minutes [!] she concluded the meeting with some facts clarified but without resolution. Ben and Allen thanked her for hearing them out and inquiring into the incident rather than blaming them.
Later, I asked Julia to assess her performance. I think I missed something important, she said. Didn’t get to the guts of it. We kept going round in unproductive circles. There was something unsaid, things they didn’t say.
I asked, What were Ben’s and Allen’s feelings when the conversation began?
They were twitchy, nervous and defensive . . . scared of what might happen and . . . Uh-oh . . .
I didn’t acknowledge that. Those feelings. Or respond to them. I just went for the logical stuff. They were probably terrified that the sky was about to fall on them.
How did you know those were their feelings?
It was obvious. Damn! You could see it in their faces and how they spoke.
What percentage of what they were communicating was emotional?
About 90% much of the time.
What would have happened if you’d developed the dialogue by being more empathetic?
You mean if I’d reflected their feelings, connected them with the facts and used them to help direct the conversation . . ?
We’d probably have got to the heart of the matter. Found out whatever wasn’t being said. In half the time!
How were they feeling as the meeting finished?
Still anxious about . . . something.
How are you feeling about this, now?
Rather disappointed. But I’ll do better next time.
With better listening at a subsequent meeting, that story eventually had a useful resolution but it had taken much more time than was necessary.
Emotional Intelligence: The ability to perceive and monitor emotions, choose which to focus on, and use this to guide thinking and actions. [Salovey & Meyer, Peter, Goleman]
Empathy: The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand [their] emotions . [Alvin Goldman] The capacity to know what another is experiencing emotionally from within the frame of reference of that other person. [D. M. Berger]
I could fill a book with everyday examples of missed opportunity for workplace effectiveness and progress during interpersonal communication. In the vast majority of those, one behaviour towers above others as the common denominator causing the problem: incompetent or inappropriate listening practices.
“The thing is, people are very rarely listened to in a way that makes them really think through the decisions they make in their lives.” [David Broockman]
How important is this? Ask yourself which of the following activities are important for effectiveness in your connections with other people:
- building trust?
- developing teamwork?
- promoting or selling ideas, products or services?
- facilitating productive group discussions?
- conducting interviews?
- coaching, training or counselling to develop performance?
- reaching consensus in discussions?
- confronting under-performance and malperformance?
- giving and receiving feedback?
- responding to criticism, distress or hostility?
- delegating work?
- engaging others in problem-solving, generating ideas, and action-planning?
- enhancing interpersonal relationships?
- clarifying, confronting, discussing and negotiating around differences?
ALL of those activities require a high level of competence with listening skills.
I wish I could say Obviously, they all do, but to most people it’s not at all obvious. The critical role listening skills play in these everyday responsibilities of . . . practically everyone . . . usually lies overlooked in the obscure murkiness of so-called “soft stuff” of self-management and leadership practices.
This skill set is one in which people are often significantly underdeveloped and least self-aware of. They don’t understand the quality of their practices, their own part in their interpersonal challenges nor the benefits of change, because they lack objective criteria and a discipline for evaluating them.
Many managers believe in their heart of hearts that the “soft stuff” – employees’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs – has no place in workplace dialog. “All that matters is that they behave in the ways I need them to; it doesn’t matter why”, they will say. While rational (behaviours drive performance after all) this view misses the point that it is employees’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs that drive their behaviors. Ignoring the underlying mindsets of employers during change is to address symptoms rather than root causes. [Scott Keller & Carolyn Aiken]
How constructive are your interpersonal communication practices generally and your listening skills especially? How do you know?