#192 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 12
The Lost Art
Dr. Nichols is
professor of psychology, College of William and Mary,
Williamsburg, Virginia. He
is author of The Lost Art
of Listening (Guilford Press, New York, 1995), from which this
article is adapted.
“Why won't he
even listen to my idea?” “Why
am I cut off before I provide the whole story?” How many times
have you been frustrated by someone not listening to what you have
to say? How many
times have you frustrated others by not listening to them?
We tend to think
that listening is the same as hearing; but listening really is
being alert to those situations in which the person you’re with
needs to be understood. Listening
problems can be serious, not only at work, but with family and
Many times we
jump in to say what's on our minds--before we've even acknowledged
what the other person has said--short circuiting the possibility
of mutual understanding. Speaking
without listening, hearing without understanding is like snipping
an electrical cord in two, then plugging it in anyway, hoping
somehow that something will light up.
Most of the time we don't deliberately set out to break the
connection. In fact,
we're often baffled and dismayed by a feeling of being left
sitting around in the dark.
Managers are Good Listeners
expected to lead and direct the people under them.
Unfortunately, people are promoted because they were good
at the jobs they were doing, not because they've proven themselves
as managers. In fact,
according to the Peter Principle, people tend to advance until
they reach their level of incompetence.
As a result, many executives and managers pay more
attention to the product than to the people producing it--to the
detriment of both.
managers are proactive listeners.
They don't wait for members of their staff to come to them;
they make an active effort to find out what people think and feel
by asking them. The
manager who meets frequently with staff members keeps informed
and, even more important, communicates interest in the people
policy allows access, but it doesn't substitute for an active
campaign of reaching out and listening to people. The manager who doesn't ask questions communicates that he or
she doesn't care. And
if he or she doesn't listen, the message is "I'm not there
for you." Even
if a manager decides not to follow a subordinate's suggestion,
listening with sincere interest conveys respect and makes the
employee feel appreciated.
memo or email--however witty or informal--doesn't substitute for
personal contact, because it closes off the chance to listen.
through the motions of meeting with people doesn't work either.
The fake listener doesn't fool anyone.
Poor eye contact, shuffling feet, busy hands, and
meaningless replies, like "That's interesting" and
"Is that right?" give them away.
The insincere listener's lack of interest in the
conversation betrays a larger problem:
lack of interest in the person with whom the listener is
Most people don't
listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent
to reply. Even at
work, where performance takes priority over relationships,
listening carefully to understand the other person's point of
view, before you even think about replying, is the key to
It's important to
realize that failure to listen isn't necessarily a product of
meanness or insensitivity. Anxiety,
preoccupation, and pressure can undermine the skills of even a
good listener. The
point is, really, that at work, as in every other arena of life,
listening is important and may require a little effort.
managers develop a routine in which communication time is an
integral part of the job. They
meet with their staff and ask questions.
They don't react before gathering all the facts.
If they don't know what their people are thinking and
feeling, they ask--and they listen.
if Your Boss Doesn’t Listen?
If at this point
we were to leave the subject of listening in the workplace, we
would have fallen into the easy habit of reducing a complex
subject to a simple formula:
thoughtful managers listen to what their employees have to
say. Where does that
leave those who don't get listened to at work?
Feeling sorry for themselves.
When we don't
feel heard by our superiors, few of us give up right away.
We write memos, we ask to meet with them, we try to
communicate our needs and convey our points of view.
Then we give up. Frequently, we complain to our coworkers and our family and
of frustration with third parties rather than addressing conflicts
at their source can take on epidemic proportions in work settings.
Sometimes it takes on the form of gossip, running down
someone who's not present.
Letting off steam
by complaining to sympathetic listeners about other people is a
perfectly human thing to do.
The problem is that habitual complaining about superiors
locks us into passivity, helplessness, and mean-spiritedness.
We may have given up trying to get through to them, but we
certainly don't mind saying what we think of them--as long as they
aren't within earshot.
I once worked in
a clinic with six other psychotherapists, where everyone except
the director went out for lunch together.
Guess what the main topic of conversation was? The director and what a rigid guy he was.
And guess what the group did about it?
Complained regularly among themselves, as though they were
a resistible force and he were an immovable object.
But, some of you
might be thinking, my boss really is insensitive!
I've tried to talk to him, and he just doesn't
listen. I don't doubt
it. People aren't
promoted because they're good listeners.
They get promoted because they're good workers, or maybe
good talkers. Moreover,
positions of authority encourage the directive side of human
nature, often at the expense of receptivity.
The mistake people make in trying to get through to
unreceptive superiors is the same mistake most of us make in
dealing with the difficult people in our lives:
We try to change them.
And when that doesn't work, we give up.
Instead, start by
examining your own expectations.
What do you want, and how are you programmed to go about
getting it? Are you
expecting to have your personal needs met at work?
Do you work hard and wait patiently for the boss to tell
you that you're doing a great job, like a good little boy or girl?
Have you learned to try to get responded to by being clever
rather than competent, or by being pleasing rather than
important at work because it enables people to understand each
other, get along, and get the job done.
But don't get too personal.
Don't let your compassion (or desire to be appreciated)
allow someone to let talking about their personal problems
interfere with work. This
may be happening if you're the only person he talks to or if she
uses your sympathy as more than an occasional excuse for taking
time off or for not getting work done.
A good supervisor
keeps channels of communication open--and keeps them focused on
the task at hand--by asking for frequent feedbacks about how
things are going (on the job).
"What do you
like and dislike so far about working here?"
anything you think we should change to make things smoother?"
"How do you
Remember that it
can be intimidating for subordinates to give criticism or make
suggestions. If you
want them to feel safe enough to open up, reassure them that you
appreciate their ideas.
you spoke up."
letting me know."
realize...I'm glad you told me."
Listening to the
people we work with isn't the same as becoming friends with them.
Many people worry that if we allow ourselves to get
personal at the workplace, things might get sticky.
But those who think that effective teamwork isn't about
listening (it's about getting things done) are wrong.
Without being heard we are diminished, as workers and as
In any group,
especially one with important responsibilities, you may disagree
with someone's point. Should
you just keep quiet, or should you speak up?
How should you speak up?
Keep in mind the
difference between dissent and defiance. Defiance means attacking the other person's position
and making him wrong. Dissent
meant having the courage to stand up for what you think and feel.
It's the difference between saying "You're wrong"
and "This is how I feel."
Clearly, a dissenting message is much easier to hear than a
defiant one. The
listener is more willing and interested in hearing a dissenter's
who hears a defiant objection will tend to either ignore the
comment or rudely be counter-defiant.
This is a common problem that tends to increase barriers
between people, something you don’t want in a work environment
where teamwork is necessary.
is difficult and takes practice to improve. Try harder to understand the other person’s perspective.
That takes an expression of caring enough to listen.
a need we have; it’s a gift we give.