Active listening for managers

a purple echinacea flower in a vase, seen from above, a clear focus of attention.

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of cultivating empathy and curiosity as foundational principles of an inclusive team, and we discussed the fact that one key skill that enables people to act out empathy and curiosity at work is active listening. This week I want to go deeper and get practical: how do you go about exhibiting that key skill to your team?

In remote settings, making it clear that you’re listening requires some intention and preparation. Before your next meeting, take a look at your setup and identify your most frequent distractions. (If your most frequent distractions are other humans currently quarantining with you, I am the wrong person to give you focus advice, and the next couple of paragraphs are probably going to sound ridiculous – but hopefully they’ll help you develop some good meeting habits that you’ll be able to stick with in days when a more controlled environment is feasible.)

In my remote-meeting setup, I generally have two monitors, one where I keep my video meeting at full-screen (tip: make this the monitor with your webcam on it for a better “I’m paying attention to you” experience for your colleagues) and the second where I’m taking notes, presenting slides, or keeping reports handy for reference. If I have my email or chat apps easily visible on the second screen, I’m likely to get distracted by incoming requests, typically things that aren’t actually urgent or important to deal with in that moment. Most of us are now conditioned to pull our attention immediately to any sort of notification icon; arrange your notification settings and browser tabs to minimize their impact on your physical and virtual meeting space.

I’m also a fidgeter. If I’m not taking notes, I’m likely to be messing with whatever object is nearest my keyboard or kicking at fidget devices at my standing desk. For the other person in the meeting, it looks like I’m not paying attention if they don’t know that it’s a focus tool for me. To preempt that feeling that my fidgeting can bring up, I try to remember to say it explicitly when I start meeting with someone new, and I try to keep my fidgeting out of frame as much as possible. Because I know this about myself, I also try to keep my phone in a place where it isn’t likely to be “the object nearest my keyboard” so that I don’t turn it into my fidget device; engaging with my phone will actually take my attention away from the meeting.

Once you’ve established an environment that allows you to pay attention to your colleague, create space for them to tell you what’s going on by asking open-ended questions. By this, I mean questions that don’t lead your colleague to any specific answer, that ideally give them a chance to describe a situation in detail, and that prompt them to say more than “yes” or “no.” (Yes-or-no questions often contain a hint at the answer you expect. Sometimes you need to do this to nudge someone toward a solution! But that’s not “active listening” mode, which should be your default.) 

The goal of your open-ended questions is to get at issues underlying any challenges or obstacles that your team member might be facing. Often, that will mean that you need to (gently) push them to consider the challenge in a new way with questions like “What do you think is causing that?” (This is a wordier way of asking “Why?”, which can sometimes make people feel defensive; “why do you think that is?” also works here.) In a relationship where you have some measure of trust already built, and the element of defensiveness is less of a factor, you can go to the “toddler tactic”: continue asking “why?” until you get to the thing that feels like the real root of the problem. (You’ll sometimes hear this described as “the Five Whys” method, generally attributed to Taiichi Ohno, the author of Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production.)

As your report describes a situation, you may identify moments where you think there’s more to be said. Listen to your instincts there; the phrase “do you want to say more about that?” is my go-to when I want them to elaborate, without inserting my interpretation of what they mean. I’ve often made a guess about what they mean before asking them to say more; asking in this way allows me to check my guess before it becomes an outright assumption.

Part of active listening is getting comfortable with moments of silence in a meeting. While your report is talking, avoid the temptation to formulate your response in your head; thinking about what you’re going to say next while someone else is talking is inaudibly talking over them. Give them space to finish talking, allow a moment or two of silence while you formulate your own response, and then continue the conversation. Nodding while you do that is a subtle way to indicate that you’re still engaged in the conversation, and I also like to be explicit that a little silence in a meeting is a good thing and doesn’t mean you’re wasting time.

One last key component of active listening as a manager: once you have the root of a challenge, work with your report to identify action items, and make sure that they happen. There are contexts where simply listening to someone is enough to support them; a manager/report relationship is not one of them. You need to take action to help them address the issue. If you plotted “behaviors of a good friend” and “behaviors of a good manager” in a Venn diagram, it would have a lot of overlap, but would not be not a circle, and listening just for the sake of listening would only land in the “behaviors of a good friend” section.

Modeling this skill is a critical part of your work as a manager of an equitable, effective team. As a leader, your organization has placed an implicit value on you and your behavior; modeling active listening as a means to empathetic, curious collaboration shows your team that those behaviors are valued in your organization and encourages them to do the same. In addition, think about how you can ask them to show this skill in their own work and measure their progress against it. (That’s a sneak preview of next week, where we’ll talk about ways to measure your team on skills that can show “potential” for more senior roles or increased responsibility.)

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