The Thoughtful Leader

Tag Archives: Listening And Workplace Relationships

Listening Skills at the Office

I was asked to do a training session on listening skills for a group of corporate executives a couple of weeks ago. How could I connect this training to systems-based leadership and the approach to self-management that we’ve described in “Leading a Business in Anxious Times?” Everyone knows what effective listening entails, whether on the job, in the family, or among friends. It’s important to pay attention to the person who is speaking, to maintain eye contact with him or her, to nod and smile from time to time, to give feedback that shows you’ve been listening (“what I’m hearing is…,” “sounds like you are saying…,” “is this what you mean?”), not to interrupt, and then to respond honestly and respectfully when the person is finished speaking.
But why is this so difficult for so many people? Why do we remember a mere 25 – 50% of what we hear? Why are most of us so unaware of the difficulty we have in really listening to the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others? Where is all our reactivity coming from?
Those of you who have read “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” particularly Chapter 8 (“From the Family to the Workplace”), can guess where I went with this training session. My first questions had to do with “listening in the family when you were growing up.” I asked how family members paid attention to each other, how they showed they were listening to each other, how they gave each other feedback, whether there was a difference in the way the adults and the kids listened to each other, and whether anxiety played a part in the way family members listened to each other.
Some of the executives in the training session couldn’t remember how their family members had listened (or not listened) to each other while they were growing up, but many of them described free-for-alls, with people talking all at once and the loudest voice carrying the day. Others described very quiet families in which everyone went about their own business without sharing any thoughts or feelings with each other. The most challenging part of the training session was the discussion of how the executives had automatically carried ancient, long-forgotten family patterns into their adult lives, particularly into the workplace, and how they affected workplace relationships, including leadership.
As you know from reading “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” the first step in implementing behavioral change is to become aware of what you have been doing. When you become self-aware, you then have choices about whether you want to continue a particular automatic behavior or whether you want to try something different. The training session concluded with some role plays in which the executives tried out new ways of listening to each other. You could create some role plays for yourself, after you’ve thought about how people listened to each other in the family you grew up in, after you’ve become more aware of the listening (or non-listening) patterns you’ve carried into your adult life, and if you’ve decided you wanted to change some of those patterns.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD