People are getting increasingly exhausted and frustrated by not being listened to at work. At best, that can lead employees to foster resentment against their leaders and organisations and consider upping sticks for more receptive pastures. At worst, it can lead to – or perhaps exacerbate – mental health difficulties, as staff become more and more concerned about not being heard when they’re trying to highlight issues that are affecting their work-life balance.
Some organisations view the process of sharpening their people’s listening skills as a ‘one and done’ deal: put leaders and managers on a training course, and hope that the specialist expertise yields the desired results. But listening doesn’t really work like that. It’s got to have some sort of continuity to it, because proper listening is all about paying attention to how things are developing over time.
If leaders and managers want to be effective stewards of psychological safety – not so much by focusing entirely on mental health challenges, but by giving airtime to literally any type of information that employees consider important – they need to adopt more of a gym-style mindset to listening: a dedicated and thoughtful practice. They need to take it seriously and look at introducing listening shifts, listening groups and any other, similar forums that will provide opportunities for people to say what needs to be said, and be understood.
With all that in mind, here are a few tips for how leaders can tune up their listening:
1. Pause to prepare
In the workplace, leaders tend to wrap up one meeting and go straight into the next, with the seat in front of their desk – or their Zoom screen – effectively becoming a slideshow of changing faces. What’s missing from this sort of schedule stacking are opportunities to reset and reframe for the next individual. But try to carve out some moments to do this, so the day doesn’t feel like an unbroken churn of conversation.
As an actor and Samaritans volunteer, I use those sorts of moments to get into the right headspace. In stage acting, we talk about the ‘half,’ or final stretch of prep time before the curtain rises. That’s the window for psyching ourselves up. At Samaritans, I must go to my branch to do my listening. When I arrive, I go through a setup ritual where I put my notepad, pens and other desk-ware in the places I want them at my station, so I feel ready to go.
Even amid time pressures, leaders should aim to factor in little resets so they are treating each new conversation as an individual case.
2. Be an active participant
Make sure you actually are listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. Large chunks of everyday conversation take place under a barely concealed toleration for getting through what the other person is saying, so we can come in with what we think is the most important stuff. But the speaker is looking for signs that the information they are imparting has properly lodged in the thought process of the person they are addressing.
In conversation, we tend to make extremely quick judgments – indeed, the more senior we are, the more we are expected to trust our instincts and know the truth of ‘how things are.’ But the negative effect of that is that it completely slams curiosity.
If someone is speaking to us and we’re standing there thinking, ‘I know exactly where this is going,’ we will pre-judge the information before it’s fully conveyed – and may even distort our own impression of what’s being said through the lens of our preconceptions. Either that, or our attention will wander because we think we know what’s coming, and we’re not really listening at all. So, second-guessing is not active involvement. In fact, it’s counterproductive.
It's important to be an analytical listener – which means that you must learn how to listen between the lines. For example, the person in front of you may be nervous about delivering sensitive information, or bad news about a project, and may hesitate or lean on euphemisms to make it more comfortable to speak. If they’re not being frank, you’re probably not getting the full picture. And there’s nothing worse than walking away from a conversation with an element of vagueness, worried you’ve missed a valuable opportunity to dig a little deeper.
If you’re in a one-to-one conversation, a powerful means of demonstrating engagement is to pick up on the words that the other person is saying and reflect them back. US writer Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, says that we should repeat the last three words that the speaker has just said at the end of a sentence, to show that we’ve been with them. Now, that depends on the nature of the conversation – used to excess, it could drive the other person nuts. But properly measured, it will signify that you’re present.
3. Manage your interruptions
Time pressure is always a huge factor in workplace communication, yet some people may be quite expansive, detailed and wide-ranging in how they get their point across. But even so, interruptions must be carefully considered.
Of course, interrupting people is not always a negative thing: in some cases, it may show that you are sparking off what the other person is saying, which demonstrates engagement. But crashing in when someone is in full flow can derail their train of thought and lead to either you receiving an incomplete picture, or them getting flustered and annoyed. Or both.
So, think before you chime in.
4. Keep your listening energies refreshed
As professionals, we need to put far greater thought into how we can carve out above-adequate space and time for our minds and bodies. Put simply, it’s just not possible to keep on doing more and more and more.
My great friend and colleague Cath Bishop – the extraordinary former Olympic rower and ex-diplomat – says very wisely that if you reach a sort of elite standard of performance and want to get even better, there’s no point heading out for yet another high-intensity training session at 3am. You have to manage yourself differently.
So, organisations should dedicate a significant amount of creative input and innovation towards resolving the question of how we can create circumstances whereby leaders have the elbow room to refresh their energy. If I refer again to Samaritans – because that work inspires me so much – our process is to listen in shifts. The organisation understands that we can’t be expected to listen with full presence and 100% focus all day long, then go home and do the same for our families.
As such, it’s entirely respectable for leaders to be frank and honest enough in a meeting situation to say, “Okay – we’re at 45 minutes, everyone, and I'm overloaded. I actually need to step away from this now, have a think, reflect and create some space – and then I’ll be able to come back with a clearer head.”
Under pressure, we become very tightly attached to our to-do lists, because it’s so satisfying to be able to say, “Well, the world’s falling apart about my ears, but hey – I’ve crossed off 25 items.” However, we must get away from that relentless task focus, and think conceptually: ‘How can I find some space so I can unravel my thoughts, go for a walk, find somewhere silent and breathe differently?’