Our school district just finished up its fall parent conferences. Since our oldest graduated from high school last year, however, I no longer pay as much attention. I admit that I don’t particularly miss conferences, although they were usually upbeat and positive. We made it a point to bring our kids along and I think that made a big difference: increased confidence when things were good, and direct feedback from the teacher to the student when a mid-course correction was necessary.
I think that last point was particularly important in terms of ensuring that a teacher’s message was heard and understood loud and clear. Nothing like eliminating the middleman (in this case a parent) to effectively drive home a point.
When I stumbled on the subject for this blog, however, I recalled one particular conference which involved listening.
Our kids, you see, are generally quiet. In just about every conference I could count on the teachers saying: “Your grades are fine. But you are so quiet!” That was usually the one and only comment that was consistent throughout the years. I recall one conference, however, where the teacher probed a bit. “Why are you so quiet? Is there something wrong?”
“No, nothing is wrong,” said our daughter. “I am just listening.”
There was an awkward moment of silence and then the teacher basically said “Well, then, keep up the good work.”
Asking about it later I was told that it was very hard to listen in the classroom because of all the interruptions and, frankly, many of the other students were just not good listeners. Not surprising, this makes learning that much harder, and in the adult world work more challenging, especially if the person you are trying to work with is not a good listener.
One thing I have found over the years is that trying to change a person and make them a better listener is not easy. Yet, are there some things that we can do to help improve the process?
I came on a great article in the Harvard Business Review by Rebecca Knight titled “How to Work with a Bad Listener.” In it she offers tips on some things we can do to help get our messages through to problem listeners. In addition to her own insights she interviewed Sabina Nawaz, (a global CEO and executive coach) and Christine Riordan, (president of Adelphi University and a leadership coach). Here are some suggestions they offered to improve the process:
- Consider work styles: Is your colleague visual or verbal? Adapt to their preferred style of communication to be more effective.
- Reflect on your own behavior: Is there something in your own style that detracts from the message? Too rambling? Too detailed? Should you use stories to illustrate your point? Look in the mirror!
- Demonstrate empathetic listening: Turn the tables and try to understand your co-worker’s point of view. Understand your audience and “what’s in it for them.”
- Highlight the magnitude of your message: Right up front emphasize how important the information you want to convey is to the listener.
- Create accountability: Make sure the message is received by creating and documenting how the listener is accountable for an action or outcome of the conversation. This can be particularly helpful for those who tend to ‘forget’ easily.
- Show concern: If your colleague is overly busy and distracted, politely suggest they deal with the distractions or conflicts and arrange a better time to talk when you can have their full attention.
- Address the problem directly: Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point, be direct and organized. If the listening problem is acute, seek another, more formal, solution.
- Propose a ‘social contract’: If the problem is a real road block, work to agree on a ‘social contract’ to create more formal expectations on how you will interact. I have worked with social contracts before, and while often difficult to negotiate and implement, can pay dividends in creating a framework for behavior that everyone can live by.
Her article also included additional case studies on how to put these principles to work. You can find the full article here.
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