The Surprising Key to Productivity: Listening Skills

by | Apr 26, 2021

How to be a boss that is a good listener

You want your office to run like a finely-tuned machine, each gear meshing seamlessly with the others. This level of performance requires the WD-40 of organizations – communication skills and listening skills specifically. In my previous article, we listed three communication tips that grease the gears in an organization: listening skills, diffusing tense moments, and resolving hard feelings. Today, let’s delve more specifically into listening skills for productive work. 

Listening skills are, in my experience, an under appreciated skill that makes a considerable difference. You know what it’s like when people don’t listen: Misunderstandings abound, time is misued, productivity is wasted productivity and feelings can get hurt. In short, there’s unnecessary friction in the system. All due to the lack of listening. Developing listening skills, across the organization, keeps the gears greased.

Here are three steps to enhance your listening skills. 

Intend to listen.

You’re thinking, “Well of course I intend to listen!” But all too often, we don’t intend to listen. We intend to wait for the first opportunity to insert OUR points. You can see when someone has mentally checked out on listening and is waiting to speak. Adam Allen a Principal at Colliers Engineering & Design says, “You’re talking, and they stop listening because they’re ready to jump in with their idea. You can visibly see they don’t care what you say. They’re just waiting for the pause so they can make their point.”

Intentional listening requires that you make one of two mental shifts. 1) You must recognize that you don’t know everything. (Don’t you hate that?!) And 2) you must believe that there’s another way to see the situation that, for the other person, is just as valid as your perspective. (That’s another tough one.) differing perspectives are the ingredient that makes book clubs fun (other than the wine). Everyone reads the same book and comes away with different perceptions. All perceptions are valid in the eyes of that reader. We enjoy sharing the varied perceptions because it enhances your appreciation of the book. Why can’t it be that easy at work?

It can be if you loosen your grip on personal certainty and approach the conversation with curiosity. Instead of pouncing on the first opportunity to espouse your point, commit to listening intently to learn others’ perspectives. Listen first. Problem solve second. Dave Thatcher from Stantec notes that constant problem solving can be a challenge. He says, “Folks are trying to problem solve constantly and they’re not actually listening to the folks that are talking to them.”

Mirror, check and stop.

Let’s take this one point at a time. Mirroring is a technique where you paraphrase their point in your words and check to see if you understood correctly. Period. Here’s the mirroring part. You use phrases like:

  • Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand…
  • What I hear you saying is…
  • Do I understand correctly that…

You can also inquire for more clarity with these phrases:

  • Say more about that.
  • Tell me more. 

These phrases demonstrate that you are sincerely trying to listen and understand. Alan Mooney the Founding President of Criterium Engineers has this to say about listening, “You’ve got to really, really listen, you know, listen, deeply listen to what’s going on with that person.”

Next, check for understanding. After you mirror your understanding of the speaker’s perspective, you say, Did I understand that correctly? If they say “yes,” they continue explaining. If they say “no,” you listen again, mirror and check. Continue this cycle until they agree that you understand. 

Perhaps the hardest part is maintaining your focus on listening. It’s soooo easy to mirror and launch into your point. DON’T! Stick to listening until there’s clear confirmation that you understand their view.

Now it’s your turn.

In my personal experience, by this time I’ve learned so much by intentionally listening that it’s easier to frame my perspective in a way that’s more likely to be understood and well received. In some cases, your mirroring and checking behavior prompts them to do the same. If not, you can ask that they repeat back their understanding of your point to ensure that you have a common understanding. 

Pro tip: For high stakes conversations like performance feedback or defining action steps, at the conclusion of the conversation ask the other person to state back their understanding of next steps and/or performance expectations. You will be surprised! I can’t recall a single instance where my understanding was the same as the other person’s. It typically takes a couple tries to ensure that expectations are aligned. This technique uncovers the gap between your expectations and theirs. Without this confirmation step, you both were certain to be disappointed (or worse) when behaviors didn’t align with expectations.

It feels good to be listened to. Mary Erchul of MJB Consulting Group observes, “I just feel like people need to know that the people they’re working for respect them, listen to them, and appreciate them.” When you are listened to it feels like your opinion is respected and your time valued. Even if a point of view or action isn’t adopted, being heard is essential to continued engagement and keeps the gears greased. People don’t need agreement as much as they need to be seen and heard.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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