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Can you hear me?

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Do you have a brother or a sister?  When you were growing up, did they ever pretend not to hear you?  What did you do?  If you’re like most other people, your response probably went along these lines.  Firstly, you repeated yourself: louder, perhaps with some attention-grabbing techniques like shouting into their ear or poking them.  When that didn’t work, you probably appealed to your mum or dad.  When that failed to get a response, probably you hit them.

Time after time, I’ve asked groups the same question and time after time, I’ve got the same answer.  And the interesting thing is, we follow the same pattern as adults.  When we feel ignored, we repeat ourselves, we try to gain attention; if that doesn’t work, we appeal – to managers, to unions, to regulators, to the media – and if that doesn’t work, we’re left with violence.  Perhaps not physical violence but some other way of registering our dissatisfaction, like this wonderful news report.

Not being listened to really gets to us, which is why it’s such a surprise to me that managers I speak to say that not listening to the people in their teams is their number one mistake – the one they make the most often.

It’s understandable that it happens.  Managers have so much to do, so many different demands on their time, that setting aside some time to just listen to people, to pay attention to them, can feel like a waste.  There are so many emails to reply to, so many other things to do, that the temptation is to multi-task, to pretend to listen whilst doing other things.  The problem is, we know when someone isn’t really listening.  We can tell when they’re just going through the motions and not really paying attention and so, just as we did when we were kids, we repeat ourselves.  Which, of course, is an even greater temptation for the manager not to listen – after all, they’ve already heard that, haven’t they?

It may feel like it takes a long time but listening – really listening, not just to what’s being said but also to how it’s being said, and noticing the things that aren’t being said, too – is much quicker in the long run.  It can be the key to unlocking all kinds of prizes: to helping people feel engaged and valued at work, to new ideas or proposals, to really understanding people’s talents and skills.

It takes effort and discipline to listen but the reward is worth it.  Try it, the next time someone talks to you.  Stop what you’re doing and focus on them.  Ask yourself how it feels to be them; what is it that they’re trying to tell you?  Why are they telling you?  What do they look like, what do they sound like?  What aren’t they saying?  Do you really understand what they’re saying and what it means to them?  If not, ask questions until you do.

It doesn’t matter what technique you use – techniques can be studied and mastered easily, with practice.  What really matters is your intent: do you really want to listen to them.  Do you really believe they have something valid and useful to say?  Until you can answer yes to those questions, you’ll keep making that same mistake of not listening and we’ll keep repeating ourselves – or worse!

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