By Steve Kelman

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How to work with a bad listener

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I have occasionally in the past blogged about articles appearing on the Harvard Business Review website, which I try to follow. The site runs articles appearing in the bi-monthly Harvard Business Review itself, but also a great deal of other content -- like the piece I discuss in this blog -- that is generally shorter, often (though not always) not written by academics and relentlessly practical.

I read a recent piece there, called “How to Work with a Bad Listener,” by Rebecca Knight, a freelance management journalist. This article passed an important test for me: I intend to try to apply its advice in my own life, both in and outside of work.

Bad listeners, Knight writes, can be bad for two quite different types of reasons. Sometimes it is because they are distracted or unfocused. In other cases, the listeners are very focused, but only on themselves -- interrupting conversations and always jumping in for a chance to speak.

In either case, argues Christine Riordan, the president of Adelphi University and a leadership coach (also one of the article’s major sources), a bad listener can “have very negative consequences from an operational standpoint — there are often a lot of mistakes because projects don’t get executed correctly.”

What advice did I glean from this article?

  1. Be sensitive to different styles people use to process information. A “bad listener” may be a visual person who has difficulty processing oral instructions. Riordan advises “asking your colleague how they prefer to receive information. Say: ‘Should we have a conversation, or would you like to see something in writing?’”
  2. Emphasize the importance of your message up front. Before even starting a conversation, Riordan suggests explicitly saying something along the lines of, “I have something really important to talk to you about, and I need your help.”

    This sends a signal to the person you are talking with that they should prick up their ears; “it should strengthen their awareness to listen more carefully.” Riordan also recommends making your point “multiple times and in multiple ways.” Say, “I want to repeat this, because I want to make sure it’s understood.” Then follow with: “Does that make sense?” That way you can “make sure what you said has been captured.”
  3. You can encourage your colleagues to listen better by “empathetic listening,” Riordan says. Really try to understand the other person’s point of view.

    Executive coach Sabina Nawaz recommends taking simple notes while your colleague is speaking. Then, when there’s a natural pause in the conversation, validate your colleague’s main points while at the same time integrating your thoughts into the conversation.”
  4. Hold your colleague “accountable” for listening, says. When talking to a distracted boss, for example, let her “know that she’s on the hook for something” and that there is a “deliverable” that’s needed by the conversation’s end.

    You might, for instance, say: “I have three possible strategies that I want to tell you about. In the end, I’m looking for you to make a decision on one of them.’”
  5. Be tolerant of office distractions. If your colleague’s phone keeps buzzing and you notice their eyes moving in that direction, stop talking and say: “Do you need to check that?”

    Maybe the answer will be, “No, I will turn it off.” Or maybe it will be, “Yes, I am expecting an important call. Can we talk later?”
  6. Finally, be willing to call out your colleague -- but do it in positive terms, something like: “You seem distracted. Is there anything I can help you with?”

As I said, very practical advice. I am going to give these ideas a try.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 06, 2017 at 5:47 AM


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