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Listening, Your Management Superpower

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Child looking up. Listening skills for managers.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

You’re a manager and you want to add value. You want to help your team perform better and love their job at the same time. What can you do?

Becoming a better listener should be on your shortlist. It’s not a stretch to call it a management superpower. Improving your listening helps you do the following:

  • Build trust
  • Get better and more honest feedback
  • Become a better coach
  • Have better career conversations
  • Delegate better
  • Have more effective performance and accountability conversations
  • Improve engagement

Impressive! To unlock the potential of your team you’re going to have to listen a lot and listen well. But how do you get better at listening? Here are a few resources that can help. 

Search Inside Yourself

To improve you’re going to need to practice. But what are effective exercises to practice listening? Is it enough to practice listening more? In some ways yes, but it’s also nice to have more formal and targeted exercises. Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan has some great listening exercises. The book discusses emotional intelligence and mindfulness in the workplace. Here are 3 exercises that stand out for listening:

  • Mindful listening
  • Mindful conversation
  • Empathic listening

These exercises build on each other. I encourage you to read the book for all the details but here’s a taste. You’ll need a partner and in each exercise take turns being the speaker and the listener.

  • Exercise 1: Speaker talks for 3 mins, listener listens. No questions, no interruptions, the only responses allowed are short acknowledgments.
  • Exercise 2: Same as #1 except at the end of the monologue the listener tries to recount what they heard the person say. The speaker gives them feedback on how they did. 
  • Exercise 3: Same as #2 except the listener tries to describe what the speaker is feeling. Again, the speaker gives them feedback on how they did.

Never Split the Difference

Never Split the Difference is a book on negotiating written by Chris Voss, an ex-FBI hostage negotiator. I hope this is not the kind of listening you’re preparing for! Take a moment to think about negotiation.  What are the feelings and associations that come to mind? For a lot of us they’re not particularly pleasant. Now think about what makes a successful negotiator. Was empathy first on your list? Unlikely. Yet even in high-stakes life or death negotiations Voss argues that superior listening and empathy wins the day.

When it comes to listening, proper intention will crush tactics any day. The best thing you can do to become a better listener is to be genuinely interested in the person in front of you. That said, once you have the proper intention it’s helpful to have tactics to improve your execution. Never Split the Difference provides great listening tactics. These are especially useful when you are trying to get more information. Here are a few:

  • Labels — A statement or question that acknowledges someone’s emotion. These almost always begin with:
    • It seems like…
    • It sounds like…
    • It looks like…
  • Mirrors — Repeating the key 1–3 words that the person just said with an upward inflection to make it a question.
  • Calibrated questions — Open-ended questions that usually start with what or how.
  • Silence — Use it strategically to encourage your counterpart to keep talking. 

Practice these tactics until they become second nature. You’ll become a better listener and a better negotiator! For more you can also check out Chris Voss’ company blog or his MasterClass.

Getlighthouse Blog

The Getlighthouse blog is one of my favorite management resources. It’s great for 1–1s and also has some good content on listening. This article has 5 high-level tips to help managers become better listeners:

  • Ask more questions
  • Pause…resist the temptation to speak immediately
  • Use active listening skills
  • Start with your most junior staff
  • Avoid the temptation to give advice

Each tip comes with content and a lot of resources if you feel like going down the rabbit hole.

The last point can be tough. It can be particularly hard for engineers to avoid giving advice. We’re problem solvers! When we see a problem we want to jump in and fix it. Sometimes it’s the right thing to give advice. Other times it’s much better to coach and listen. Instead of trying to make a dramatic change try to coach more often than before.

Putting it in action

Here are some other ideas to work your listening muscles:

  • When someone asks you for help, resist the temptation to go straight to a solution. Instead try asking a few questions to get more information. See if you can get them to propose a solution before you do. 
  • When you ask a good question, view that as a starting point. Take the time to listen and explore. Try not to jump in with your answer or move on to the next question or topic. Use active listening to show you’re interested and ask follow up questions to go deeper. “Tell me more?” is a great place to start.
  • When you ask a question and get a short answer, view that as a challenge! Can you get a better answer? Can you ask a better question?
  • Talk to your team about listening and its importance. Share these resources with them and let them know you’d like to become a better listener. Ask them for feedback. When did they feel you listened well or poorly? 

What about you?

These are a few resources and exercises I like. What are your favorites? I’d love to hear about them!

2 thoughts on “Listening, Your Management Superpower”

  1. I find the topic very interesting, and certainly useful.
    I, however, wouldn’t be surprised that a manager would require more arguing to accept to give time to listening when efficiency is required.
    It might, for instance, help to have a clear view on whether listening means investing only in the long-term, or whether it can actually have short-term effects.
    I therefore wonder what kind of experience would lead a manager to come to think this way.

    1. One of the challenges of being a manager is knowing when to do what, with whom, and in what way. You not only need to be a good listener and good coach, but you also have to know when you should do it and how. If you think of listening as the ability to better understand what someone is telling you it’s hard to imagine a situation when it would be wrong to do so.

      However, the way that you listen could be very different if you are in the middle of a fire drill or under a lot of time pressure versus when you’re not. For example you could focus your listening efforts on understanding the information being presented and using that to decide a course of action, even if that means giving someone direct advice/instruction. Whereas in a different situation you could focus on exploring the situation and asking insightful questions to help someone think through the situation and come up with their own solutions.

      I hope that helps!

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