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Active Listening

To be a great manager you need to learn to be a good listener. In my experience some of the best listeners have the same skills as an investigative reporter! Yes, it’s true. You have to be able to ask a number of key questions while you’re absorbing the information coming at you and then as most good reporters do, you have to be able to restate what you heard to verify its accuracy. Above all, as a manager resist the temptation to jump in and solve problems. 

Follow this simple recipe:

        Be open to listening more attentively and with focus – this means putting aside the email and cell phone, making eye contact (Importance of Making Eye Contact) and not daydreaming about what you’re going to do when you get him

        Ask questions to get to the core of the problem – a simple rule of thumb says that you should ask 3 Why questions in a row to get to the root of the problem (The Theory of The 3 Whys)

        Restate what you heard to verify the facts (Why reflective listening matters)


These small steps will turn your “Bad News Bears” team into a highly functional team of winners.

A Good Manager Knows How to Listen

As the manager, it is sometimes tempting to jump in and solve the problem for your people. While this might seem expedient in the short term, it does two things. First, it sets the expectation that the employee can run to “mom” or “dad” to solve the problem at any time thus denying them the opportunity to grow and develop judgment and experience to solve their own problems.  And second, if this becomes your normal pattern of operation, you will eventually run out of bandwidth to do any work yourself because you would have run out of time while solving everyone else’s problem.  Neither scenario will create the healthy interdependent environment for the workplace.

Listening is an essential skill of all managers – when someone on your team brings you a problem/challenge you have to be able to do two things well. The first is listening so you can collect the details of the problem and the second is you have to resist the temptation to solve it on the spot. But what does it mean to listen?  There is an active component to the listening.  Take for example Bill who supervises Jen. Let’s look at two different approaches to a problem that Jen brings to Bill.

Jen: Bill, do you have a moment?

Bill: Yes

Jen: I’ve been working with the Tim the vendor who buys our widgets. They have been late paying their bills for the last 6 months. When I call him, he starts yelling at me and ultimately hangs up on me without resolving the payment issue. What would you do?

Bill: I’ll take care of Tim Jen, just continue to make the collection calls.

That conversation only took a few minutes, but it leaves Bill in the situation where he is resolving his employee’s problems. This will ultimately cause an untenable situation where Bill becomes the answer man.

Let’s try the same scenario again, this time applying more of a listening approach.

Jen: Bill, do you have a moment?

Bill: I have to be at the roundtable meeting in 20 minutes so I only have a short time. Is it brief?

Jen: I think so. I’ve been working with Tim the vendor where we sell our widgets. They have been late paying their bills for the last 6 months. When I call him, he starts yelling at me and ultimately hangs up on me without resolving the payment issue. What would you do?

Bill: OK, let me understand the situation.  What is the agreement we have in place with the vendor?

Jen: We offer all clients the same terms; “all invoices are payable net 30”.

Bill: Who is the person at the vendor site who is responsible to making sure all the bills are paid?

Jen: Well technically that’s Marie, Tim’s boss. But Tim approves the invoices for payment after they have been received.

Bill: I see. What is the status of their current orders?

Jen: They have received 3 orders and 1 more is currently being processed for shipment tomorrow. I was wondering if I should place a halt on that order until the payment issue is resolved.

Bill: Well, Jen I can see how the current order might give us some leverage in collecting the payments. What would you be worried about if we took those steps?

Jen: As one of our largest customers, I would worry that they might close their account and that would have a negative impact on our sales.  You know, I just thought that I might engage Kathy the sales rep who works with the vendor to see if she has some insight into dealing with this particular customer.

Bill: Yes I think that’s a good starting point. What else?

Jen: I thought about reaching out to Tim’s manager, Mark who I’ve met on a number of occasions to see if there is some way to expedite payment processing.  I even thought about going down there and waiting as long as I have to for a check to be cut.

Bill (nodding and smiling): Anything else?

Jen: So I think I have an approach. I’ll work with Kathy to come up with a game plan. We’ll work with the client to ensure the invoices are paid. As a next step, I will connect with Tim’s manager and collect the funds. OK. I think I have it. Is there anything else I should be thinking about?

Bill: No for now, it sounds like you have a reasonable plan. Let me know how it all turns out.

One of the hardest things for a manager to do is pulling back from giving people the solutions.  It’s human nature to form an answer and want to share it.  Don’t do it! Hold back and ask at least 5 questions? The old reporter’s series of Who, What, How, When, Where and Why tend to do just nicely.  This will take some time to change old habits, but in the end you’ll have a happier team of people around you who will be your partners in running the organization. Notice that there were a few key points in the second interaction.

Bill played an active part in inviting Jen to continue to explore the situation, but he didn’t solve the problem for her. Did Jen come up with the same solution that Bill would have? Maybe. It actually doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Jen feel empowered to make the action calls needed to do her job.  And Bill can observe Jen thinking through decisions as she solves problems.  As long Bill thinks Jen is taking sound steps in the right direction, there is no need for him to impose his approach.  He can allow Jen the latitude and freedom to achieve her goals in her own way.

CEO, MACH4 Ventures

Gina Lepore is the CEO and founder of MACH4 Ventures offering coaching, team building and execution consulting for individuals and organizations. She is a board certified coach and experienced executive with multiple decades of practical business experience. Services include: Executive Coaching, Training and Building Team Trust and Collaboration and Business Oversight Services.