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Fight the Urge to Talk, Talk, Talk

You know you need to listen more. So how do you do it? Here are 4 easy ways to sharpen your listening skills.

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In my last column, I admitted that I sometimes catch myself acting like a guy I once worked for who epitomized the tough-minded executive-and as a result rarely listened to his employees. He didn't know about problems because people were afraid to bring them to him. He had no idea what his employees thought or felt or what their aspirations were. He strode purposefully through his workdays in a leadership cocoon, believing his time was too valuable to waste it on listening to his employees.

I now know that as a business owner, my time is too valuable to waste it by not listening to my employees. I need to know what they think; I need to hear about problems or even just hunches that there might be a problem. And I really need to know that they are involved and interested and feeling good about the challenges they are pursuing in their work.

So to counter my tendency to stop listening, I try to find opportunities to use the following techniques:

1. Ask open questions, not closed ones. For instance, instead of saying, "Is everything OK?," I'll try to say something like, "What are the best and worst things that happened in my absence?" or "What kinds of problems have cropped up lately?" I'm much more likely to get a detailed, thoughtful answer with open versions of the question, especially if I make a point of relaxing myself and keeping my mouth shut for a minute or two after asking. Then the employees will see that I'm serious about hearing their answers.

2. Ask about feelings, not just facts. Strangely enough, our employees are also human beings with feelings. Traditionally, business leaders never discussed feelings with their employees. But when you come right down to it, feelings drive performances. (For instance, motivation is a feeling, isn't it?) And recent research indicates that employees perform better when supervised in a manner that is considerate of their feelings. So leaders need to listen on an emotional as well as intellectual level. For instance, sometimes I will notice that an employee seems tired or is acting down or depressed. Rather than ignore this, I'll try to say something appropriately sympathetic or encouraging. I'm not their therapist, of course, so I don't have to solve their problems. But by showing I can "hear" their feelings, I help them manage the emotional aspects of their work.

3. Try to converse using questions. It is possible to switch from telling to asking-it's just a different frame of mind. For instance, if an employee says, "I got 30 e-mails from you about things to do while I was out last week. Which should I do first?" I can say, "Which ones do you think are most important?" If she then lists a selection that I don't completely agree with, instead of correcting her, I might ask, "Of these, which ones are most likely to generate revenues in the near term?" And so forth. I can use questions to stimulate the employee to think through her question or problem instead of relying on me. She'll be getting smarter and stronger-and I just might learn something I didn't know along the way, too!

4. Meter my listening. The thing I find hardest as a manager is to stop talking so I can listen. The simple mathematics of rank says that as the business owner, I can talk for a very long time and nobody is going to tell me to shut up. But if I do most of the talking, then I can't be doing much of the listening. So it's up to me to shut myself up. I try to be aware of the ratio of my talk to the employee's. If I realize I seem to have talked twice as much, then I give myself a mental kick and shut up for long enough to even that ratio out again.

There are two beneficiaries whenever a leader does more listening. The first is the leader, who will hear more information and more ideas than before. The second is the employee, who will become more involved, interested and motivated, and whose sense of responsibility will grow as a result.

If you want your people to be mature and responsible, you need to treat them as if there are-and that means showing them enough respect to take an active interest in what they have to say.

Alex Hiam is the founder and director of Alexander Hiam & Associates, a management consulting firm, and a publisher of tools for corporate trainers. He is the author of Marketing for Dummies, Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books, and he has worked with a variety of high-tech start-ups and family-owned businesses.