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.

By Alex Hiam

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In my last column, I admitted that I sometimes catch myself actinglike a guy I once worked for who epitomized the tough-mindedexecutive-and as a result rarely listened to his employees. Hedidn't know about problems because people were afraid to bringthem to him. He had no idea what his employees thought or felt orwhat their aspirations were. He strode purposefully through hisworkdays in a leadership cocoon, believing his time was toovaluable to waste it on listening to his employees.

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

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

1. Ask open questions, not closed ones. For instance,instead of saying, "Is everything OK?," I'll try tosay something like, "What are the best and worst things thathappened in my absence?" or "What kinds of problems havecropped up lately?" I'm much more likely to get adetailed, thoughtful answer with open versions of the question,especially if I make a point of relaxing myself and keeping mymouth shut for a minute or two after asking. Then the employeeswill 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. Butwhen you come right down to it, feelings drive performances. (Forinstance, motivation is a feeling, isn't it?) And recentresearch indicates that employees perform better when supervised ina manner that is considerate of their feelings. So leaders need tolisten on an emotional as well as intellectual level. For instance,sometimes I will notice that an employee seems tired or is actingdown or depressed. Rather than ignore this, I'll try to saysomething appropriately sympathetic or encouraging. I'm nottheir therapist, of course, so I don't have to solve theirproblems. But by showing I can "hear" their feelings, Ihelp them manage the emotional aspects of their work.

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

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

There are two beneficiaries whenever a leader does morelistening. The first is the leader, who will hear more informationand more ideas than before. The second is the employee, who willbecome more involved, interested and motivated, and whose sense ofresponsibility will grow as a result.

If you want your people to be mature and responsible, you needto treat them as if there are-and that means showing them enoughrespect 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 toolsfor corporate trainers. He is the author of Marketing for Dummies, Streetwise Motivating & RewardingEmployees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books,and he has worked with a variety of high-tech start-ups andfamily-owned businesses.

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