Don't talk louder, listen more

When your team asks for greater communication… check yourself. They may not always mean they want you to talk more; They might be asking to be heard.

Having a conversation with a friend, she started explaining how bad communication was in her workplace. When pressing further she said, "Well, administration shows up and talks TO us but they never truly talk WITH us. They don't hear what we're doing, what we need, or about our processes and plans. They simply fill us in on their agenda without asking or considering how it impacts our day to day." 

This conversation immediately made me check myself. As a director and leader, I pride myself on constantly improving my communication skills. This comment made me stop short because I know I've been guilty of talking more when complaints of miscommunication come out rather than stopping to think about how I can improve my listening skills.

Talking louder or more frequently is not communication. Research has shown time and again that employee engagement and culture can be drastically improved when leaders know when to stop talking and start listening. Use the tips and tricks below to improve your organizational and personal listening skills:

Build trust with your staff: For employees to speak up, there must be an atmosphere of trust at the foundation. Have you really questioned this within your organization lately? Do employees trust you as the leader? Do employees trust each other? You may not get the opportunity to listen because people don't feel safe sharing.

Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.Leadership is a Conversation by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind.

Address your meeting culture: This is one of the best places to begin as this is probably already a part of your daily or weekly work routine and with a few tweaks you could drastically increase the feedback portion of the meeting so employees feel like they have a platform and time to report back. Check out the article, 7 Ways to Have your Best Meeting Ever, to improve your meeting culture to include more opportunities for listening.

Check your question stacking tendencies: Question stacking is when a speaker asks a first question, then follows quickly up with a second, third, fourth that are all related. Sometimes this is done in an effort to clarify the first question. Sometimes this is done when no one immediately answers and the speaker is subconsciously filling the silence.  Not matter the reason why we have adopted this practice, it is not helpful to solicit your team's feedback. Ask one question and then shut your mouth. Sit quietly waiting for people to think. It is helpful sometimes for a speaker to count to 7 in their head quietly before following up with a clarifying question or comment. Silence can feel awkward at first but the practice of leaving space for people to think and then offer their answer will drastically increase the feedback among the team and will insure they feel like they were given a chance to be heard.

Don't interrupt; truly listen to the words that are being said: We all think and speak at different rates and we all have different temperaments. This creates an interesting dynamic when it comes to listening. Interrupting sends a variety of messages, but typically none of them are good. Interrupting subconsciously tells the other person things like: My agenda is more important. I don't really care what you're saying. You're not worth my time.

It's so tempting to interrupt because most of us are simply planning and concentrating on what we're going to say next. The thing is though, you cannot rehearse a statement in your head and be truly listening at the same time. Dianne Schilling gives the suggestion, "Allow your mind to create a mental model of the information being communicated. Whether a literal picture, or an arrangement of abstract concepts, your brain will do the necessary work if you stay focused, with senses fully alert. When listening for long stretches, concentrate on, and remember, key words and phrases."

Learn the art of "repeating back" at the end of a conversation: If people are feeling unheard within an organization, this practice immediately begins to validate and improve the communication exchange. At the end of a conversations try out statements such as: "So what I'm hearing you say is…" or "I can appreciate that you're feeling…." Or "Let me make sure I understand you, you stated…" This practice assures your employees that you accurately understood what they are communicating to you and gives them a chance to clarify if you've misunderstood.

Offer multiple ways for employees to give feedback: Of course face-to-face conversations where you can look someone in the eye are typically the best course of action to ensure employees are heard, understood, and appreciated. However, this practice is not always possible nor does it account for various temperaments and preferred communication styles. Creating an organizational culture that constantly seeks feedback through multiple channels is the best way to improve overall communication: 

  • Offer anonymous feedback options through surveys frequently to get feedback on key items. 
  • Consider a creating a digital "Ask me" form on your website so employees can constantly submit questions or concerns directly to administration.
  • Send out an email after key staff meetings to solicit feedback from those that weren't able or comfortable sharing their opinion. 

Organizing an inclusive feedback strategy on campus can drastically improve employee engagement and may even impact quality control, innovation, process improvements, etc. from employees bringing valuable information to the attention of administration. The key to this strategy working though is that we, as leaders, need to sometimes check our ego at the door and listen to the positive as well as taking the constructive criticism to heart.

"One-way, top-down communication between leaders and their employees is no longer useful or even realistic. Today's leaders achieve far more engagement and credibility when they take part in genuine conversation with the people who work for and with them." – Leadership is a Conversation by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind.

For communication to improve within an organization, sometimes you need to stop talking and start hearing what your employees are already trying to tell you.

About the Author

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Jessica Beans is a researcher and facilitator specializing in group dynamics, leadership, and change management. She holds an undergraduate degree in public relations and graphic design and a masters degree in organizational leadership with an emphasis in change management and strategic innovation.

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