“You are not listening to me. I need you to pay attention.” 

The irony of this is that I just completed listening to an online seminar by organizational culture guru, Edgar Schein. In the online seminar, he and his son talked about some of their books, and of course pointed to one of their more well-known works titled Humble Inquiry. The point of the online seminar was to emphasize that the best leaders of organizational culture change are those who truly have the ability to listen to their employees. 

As I listened to this online seminar, I thought this would be a good refresher topic to discuss in one of my newsletters. But what story could I tell to emphasize the difference between inquire versus advocacy?

I could not believe that this fell into my lap. Immediately following the online seminar, I had a meeting with contractor Mike (fictitious name). Since moving to the farm a couple of months ago, our priority has been to finish our 105-year-old basement. Because of its age, there’s lots of infrastructure to handle. Mike’s firm is one I’m considering. 

Upon meeting Mike, he said, “I’m here to answer your questions.” I invited Mike to sit with me on the back porch to talk. We enjoyed the warmth of the sun as I thought, gosh, this is great, someone that will actually listen. “Can we proceed with some construction while we wait…” He interrupted me. Then he went into a 10-minute monolog about how great his company is. I tuned it all out. I was already frustrated. I honestly don’t remember a thing he said, other than at the end, he said, again, “I am here to answer your questions.” I thought, “Yeah, right, so far, not so good.” And then I posited, “I want to continue with my questions, but to be clear, we can go ahead with some construction…” More interruptions. No listening. Frustration. 

Somewhere in the conversation I asked about an allowance for plumbing. I had to repeat myself four times about exactly what I wanted. As my frustration grew, I finally had to say to him, “You are not listening to me. I need you to pay attention.” Finally, he listened. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure.

Here was a guy who said he was here to answer my questions. If I were to guess word count, I’d say he outspoke me 50 words to 1. Edgar Schein would not be proud. Mike was more clearly interested in advocating all the reasons why I should hire him than in answering any of my questions.

Are you a leader like Mike? If so, STOP! Clearly this example is extreme, but it’s real, and I’ve seen leaders in business behave almost as badly. One manager I knew gave a 59-minute monologue for a one-hour town hall meeting and at the end asked if there were any questions. There were none. Surprise, surprise.

Instead, be an inquiring leader.

  1. Ask probing questions about how a change might impact employees.
  2. Avoid “why” questions as they suggest judgment.
  3. Listen to listen, not to respond.
  4. Don’t interrupt. Never interrupt.
  5. Respond with more questions to seek clarity.
  6. Don’t rush to solve the question. Take in the information and data.
  7. If action on your part is required, make the commitment, follow through, and communicate when you have completed the action.
  8. If action is required on their part, ask them to commit to a date, and let you know when they’ve completed the action.
  9. Don’t use this as an opportunity to advocate your cause.
  10. Do use this as an opportunity to build a relationship of trust.

What have you done to improve your listening skills? How do you let your team, or your employees, know that you are genuinely listening to them? Please go out to LinkedIn to add your comments.

Dedicated to fueling your growth,

Steve

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