How to Work with a Bad Listener

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rebecca Knight for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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It’s a challenge to work with people — peers, junior colleagues, or even bosses — who just don’t listen. Whether your colleagues interrupt you, ramble on, seem distracted, or are always waiting for their turn to talk, the impact is the same: You don’t feel heard, and the chances for misunderstandings — and mistakes — rise. Are there tactics you can use to encourage your colleagues to listen better? Should you talk to them about their poor listening skills? What’s the best way to deliver the message?

[Here are the first four approaches that she recommends.]

What the Experts Say

“Dealing with colleagues who don’t listen is both hard and frustrating,” says Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO and executive coach. “When someone is not fully present, it erodes the quality of what you say.” The experience might, for instance, “cause you to lose your train of thought” or “suppress what you originally planned to communicate.” It’s also possible that “you could get derailed into the drama of why it’s happening,” she adds. “You might take it personally and think, ‘My colleague is so arrogant.’” Potential problems aren’t limited to “misunderstandings and hard feelings,” according to Christine Riordan, the president of Adelphi University and a leadership coach. A colleague who doesn’t listen can also “have very negative consequences from an operational standpoint — there are often a lot of mistakes because projects don’t get executed correctly.” So it’s imperative to address the issue. Here are some strategies for working with colleagues who never seem to be listening.

Consider work styles

While some of your colleagues may be flaky space cadets who are unable to pay attention, it’s also possible that they may be more visual people who have difficulty processing oral instructions. “Some people are visual and some are verbal,” Riordan says. She advises “asking your colleague how they prefer to receive information. Say: ‘Should we have a conversation, or would you like to see something in writing?’” Try to be a “flexible” and understanding conversation partner, Nawaz adds. “You need to use your colleague’s time efficiently.”

Reflect on your own behavior

Putting up with a colleague who’s a bad listener often causes you to “look in the mirror” and “question whether you’re a good listener yourself,” Riordan says. “Bad role models are as instructive as good ones,” she adds. As part of this soul-searching, it’s wise to reflect on how you approach professional conversations and what you could do to improve, Nawaz says. “Maybe you’re a rambling speaker. Maybe you overwhelm your listener with numbers. Maybe you need to tell more stories,” she says. Take the time to “get some data on your own communication style” so that you can model the behavior you want to see.

Demonstrate empathetic listening

One way to encourage your colleagues to listen better is by practicing “empathetic listening,” Riordan says. Really try to understand the other person’s point of view. Nawaz recommends taking notes while your colleague is speaking — simple “one- or two-word reminders” will suffice. “Then, when there’s a natural pause in the conversation, validate your colleague’s main points while at the same time integrating your thoughts into the conversation.” The goal, Nawaz says, is to “think about your audience” and “what’s in it for them.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

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