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The best managers are the best listeners: 4 steps

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training,People Management,Performance Reviews

Managers spend a good part of their workday listening to other people. But bear in mind, there’s a big difference between “passive” and “active” listening.

In many cases, managers are too busy thinking about their response rather than listening to the employee’s full statement. In a business setting, this lack of attention can result in costly mistakes, wasted time, poor service and management failure.

By listening fully and in a way that shows understanding and respect for the speaker, you develop a rapport and build trust. That’s the true foundation from which you can manage and influence others.

How do you react when faced with poor-performing or disruptive employees? Unfortunately, too many managers simply play ostrich, sticking their head in the sand and hoping the situation improves. The result: problems worsen, morale deteriorates and productivity takes a major hit. Access our manager's tooklit on managing problem employees HERE.

Effective listeners use a four-step process to ensure understanding:   

1. Listen to the total message

If you hear only bits of what is said, you may draw the wrong conclusions.

So, before you begin to frame your response, listen to everything the person has to say and give 100% of your attention. Find the main thought the person is trying to share and consider it from his or her perspective — not yours.

Prove that you care by suspending all other activities. Don’t flip through papers or keep checking your watch.

2. Prove your understanding by using nonverbal signals

Let the person know that you’re paying attention through your nonverbal cues. Doing so sets a comfortable level for the conversation and encourages the other person to keep talking. It also demonstrates that you’re interested in the topic and paying attention.

Some positive nonverbal signals:

  • Moving from behind the desk.
  • Maintaining eye contact.
  • Leaning forward slightly.
  • Raising your eyebrows when the speaker makes a significant point.
  • Nodding to indicate agreement.

3. Use open-ended probes

These are questions that allow the other person to respond at length, rather than with just a “yes” or “no” response. Open-ended questions begin with words like “why”, “how”, “explain” or “describe.”

By asking these types of questions, you’ll encourage the other person to share his or her opinions and feelings and elicit additional information.

Be aware of the number of open-ended questions you ask. Then consciously try to increase the number. You’ll find that the quality of your communication improves dramatically.

This management training CD focuses on practical, hands-on solutions – not theory! Expert Amy Henderson will quickly walk participants through a series of five real-life scenarios, explaining how to get to the root cause of the problem and the manager’s proper response. Learn more!

4. Paraphrase what you hear

To say “I understand” isn’t enough. People typically need some sort of evidence of your understanding.

In addition to nonverbal cues and questions, prove your understanding by briefly restating the information you’ve just heard or by asking a question that proves you know the main idea.

You don’t do this to prove that you were listening to the person, but to prove that you understand them. There’s a big difference.


Use this 'Memo to Managers' article to educate your supervisors. Paste the content into an e-mail, company newsletter or other communication. Edit as desired.

To be an effective listener, you must pay keen attention to the speaker. Seems like common sense but, too often, we don’t walk the talk. As managers, it’s important to model this behavior for employees and teach by example. To check your own effectiveness, take the following listening quiz to make sure you’re not guilty of these bad habits:

  1. Are you constantly trying to jump in, finishing people’s sentences when they pause too long?   
  2. Do you step on people’s sentences by talking before they’ve finished speaking?   
  3. Do you fail to make eye contact with people who talk to you, or give them verbal cues that you’re listening (e.g., head nod)?    
  4. Do you often say “yeah” or “uh-huh” while others speak?   
  5. Do you often make the same point someone else just made, or ask a question that’s just been answered?    
During this instructional CD, your whole management team will learn the essential steps to deal with problem employees quickly, appropriately and effectively, including:
  • The two types of poor performance – and why it’s important to know the difference.
  • The correct steps for “diagnosing” problems before trying to reach a conclusion (avoid “management malpractice”).
  • How to avoid a common trap that prevents managers from staying objective.
  • Specific words to use in employee coaching meetings – words that focus on the situation, not the person!
  • An easy, yet powerful, tool for tracking employee performance (no smart manager can do without this!)
  • Four “coaching points” to include in every employee discussion
  • How to foster ongoing employee feedback throughout the year (As Amy says “Discussing performance only during the performance appraisal is like dieting only on your birthday and wondering why you’re not losing weight!”)
  • How to know when to terminate … 8 questions to ask
  • And much more!

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