Covering our ears to block out unwanted noise is a universal human response. When we’re children, we literally stick our fingers in our ears, most especially when being told not to do what we’re doing, sometimes yelling “I can’t hear you!” at the same time.
As adults, we might cover our ears with our hands at a loud blast or use headphones or earbuds to curate the sounds we want to enter our eardrums, but sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you!” is usually frowned upon. I’m not proud to say that at a recent team meeting, I did just that. Of course, I did so in jest, but it got me thinking about how easy it is to dismiss ideas that I don’t want to hear.
Batting away feedback
Recently, a direct report came to me and told me about the discomfort staff were having with a particular approach senior management was using to support them during situations that needed escalation. As she spoke, I realized that she had told me this same thing two other times. I acknowledged to her that this was the third time she’d told me about this and that this time I would listen and do something.
So why did it take me three times to hear what she was saying? The problem she was presenting was one that I really didn’t want to hear about. I knew she and the other staff members were right, but taking corrective action would be difficult, not only in terms of process but also in terms of the conflict it might cause. The second time she said this to me, the message landed but again I batted it away quickly. The third time, I was tempted to bat it away, but, instead, I paused and asked her to tell me more about what she had heard and observed. I let it sink in. Then I took my fingers out of my ears and asked her what she thought might help.
The hard part of active listening
While I know I sometimes don’t hear feedback or input because I’m busy or simply think I’m right, this instance made me wonder how often I miss opportunities because I have my fingers in my ears. One leadership skill frequently taught in supervisory classes is active listening. This is often demonstrated through role-play in which one participant listens to the other talk about something important to them and then relays back what they thought they heard. This is good practice and increases self-awareness around how often we stop listening and start forming our responses during a conversation.
What this exercise usually lacks is the hard part—listening to a message that is difficult to hear because it involves feedback on our behavior, evaluative comments about a project, or suggestions for a different way to do something in which we’re heavily invested.
I’ve started to pay more attention to the point in a conversation when I stop listening. If I can catch myself in the act, I can usually bring myself back to attention.
I know I’ve stopped listening when
- I want to put my fingers in my ears, hang up the phone, or walk out of the room to get away from the person or what they are saying.
- I start creating arguments against an idea while the person is still explaining.
- I start glancing at my email or thinking about other things I need to do while the person is still speaking.
When that happens, I
- Change my posture—especially turn away from my computer if that is distracting me.
- Start taking notes about what they are saying to force myself to pay attention to the content of their message.
- Ask clarifying questions to open up rather than close down the discussion.
- Admit that I am distracted or in disagreement so we can find a way forward.
Let the speaker know
The last practice is perhaps the most crucial: to acknowledge to the speaker that I am resisting what they are saying. They often already know this. Even over the phone it’s easy to tell when someone is losing patience with our idea, is actively resisting it, or has stopped listening. If I acknowledge to myself and the speaker that I have my fingers in my ears but I’m still listening, we both know it’s a difficult topic that will need a little more processing by both of us before we come to a resolution. As teams move up the pyramid of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions from commitment to accountability, being able to acknowledge that one hasn’t fully processed an idea is crucial to achieving results.
The other side of this equation that is key to the health of a team or relationship at work is respectful and professional persistence. There is a not-so-subtle difference between repeating a message that bears repeating and beating a dead horse. Each of us has a responsibility to acknowledge that an idea is not going to move forward or that its time has come. Both of these paths take courage and hard work.
Donna Walker is Director of Public Services, Jefferson County Public Library, Lakewood, CO