Many busy supervisors may hear the people they manage without really listening to the messages their employees deliver. Managers usually have the “big picture” view but, by improving listening skills, they may be able to better understand the day-to-day workings of their company with a more detailed perspective. Good listeners recognize the value of good information regardless of its source, and that may lead to improvements in business operations and systems.

Listening differs from hearing in several key ways:

  • Hearing requires enough attention to get the gist of what the speaker is saying, but often that isn’t enough. Active listening requires your full attention.
  • Listening also requires an understanding of the context of the employee’s message. Is the employee providing good information within the context of his or her expertise? Are there ulterior motives behind the speaker’s message? How can this information be put to practical use to improve the business’ productivity and its bottom line? That’s information of value to business management.
  • The final element of listening is evaluation. Is the staff member providing sound information based on experience and expertise? Does the employee offer evidence to support what she or he says? The business manager must make every effort to remain impartial in evaluating what workers say.

Tips to Improve Listening Skills

1.    Set aside a time and place to engage in a dialog between manager and subordinate. If your office is always busy, the telephone is ringing and you’re interrupted by other staff, you won’t get the whole message, its context and its implications to business operations. Find a quiet spot, hold all calls, and focus on what the employee is saying. Avoid distractions to improve your ability to truly listen to what the speaker says.

2.    Focus, focus, focus. You may have a full slate of activities planned for the day, and you may be thinking about the next item on the day’s agenda when you should be focused on what the employee is saying. Remember, after the communication, it’s your job to evaluate what the subordinate has relayed to you, and that requires complete focus.

3.    Don’t interrupt. Allow employees to finish their point before speaking. They will appreciate your attention, and you can keep focused on what the speaker is saying without thinking about what your response will be.

4.    Remain unbiased. We all have biases, and yours may frame the employee’s comments incorrectly. For example, if a manager thinks employees should never question authority, he may miss out on an opportunity to find a better way of doing things. A subordinate with a reputation as a whiner may still be able to offer a more productive way of processing orders. Good ideas can come from any source, so set aside personal bias when truly listening.

5.    Extract key points. Even the best communicators may bounce from point to point when speaking “off the cuff.” It’s your job, as manager, to extract the main points the staff member makes and sort them into an understandable sequence. Listen for clues that indicate important items, such as, “The point I want to make is…” or “The bottom line, here, is…”

6.    Write it down. Taking notes indicates to staff that, indeed, you are listening. Even more, your notes can be re-sequenced to deliver the best outcomes from the exchange. And, of course, it may be difficult to remember all key points if you don’t write them down, so keep a pad and pencil close by to note the important elements of the employee’s presentation.

7.    Clarify the staff member’s points. Repeat what the employee says in your own words. In many cases, speaker and listener have different agendas, and re-phrasing the employee’s key points ensures that you get an accurate picture of what is being said.

8.    Provide the employee with feedback, both positive and negative. Reward good ideas with positive feedback. Concepts can go “back to the drawing board” for refinement with your feedback.

Listening – really listening – is a skill, one that can be developed by managers to improve business operations, to avoid conflicts of interest within the business organization, and to learn what’s truly important to employees.

Practice and preparation are the keys, so the next time you take a meeting, come prepared with an open mind and a notebook to record key points. Focus. Listen for verbal cues that the staff member is about to make an important point.

You’ll be amazed at what you can discover, learn and implement simply by listening to employees and co-workers, and that may make you a better manager.