Create A Supportive Work Environment with Your Ears

Greetings Temptime Readers,

I love this article as I have put it into practice at work and at home over and over again.  Listening has become an important tool in my relationship treasure chest.  People often just need a safe place to vent frustrations and we all need to feel safe with the people with whom we work and live.


“Sometimes Listening Well is All the Action Needed”
Peter H. Schmidt, Lifting Mind Inc.

During the early days at Midnight Networks, when four of us shared one 10’x15′ office, we hashed out our decisions as a group. We were committed to reaching the best decision we could, so we stuck with the discussions until we had reached a satisfactory conclusion, even when it would have been easier to just throw in the towel. Because we were all engineers, it was important to us that our decisions be soundly reasoned and the logic agreed upon.

Likewise, as engineers we also were prone to occasionally sharing our opinions in the form of sweeping generalizations. “That compiler is total garbage!” “Only a complete idiot could have designed this protocol!” Now, this was usually a harmless indulgence, and in a cooler moment we would have readily admitted that sweeping generalizations are logically suspect. The trouble happened when one of these statements recommended that an action be taken.

One day one of my co-founders said, “We should never do business with those incompetent cretins again!” after a particularly frustrating incident of non-service from a service provider. He approached me with a full head of steam, swept out his generalization, and waited for me to concur.

Problem was, I didn’t concur. Being the cooler head at that moment, I felt that this incident was no worse than you might expect to experience periodically with them or any of their competitors, and therefore switching our business would cost us time and effort for no real gain. So I started in to put these points across, and I wasn’t going to be satisfied until he saw the soundness of my logic. In the end, I believe he did concede that their incompetence could not be wholly complete, and that they were not, in fact, cretinous 100% of the time, and hence perhaps we should continue to do some business with them. But neither of us came out of the discussion feeling very good, even though we’d abided by our principles, talked it out, tested the logic and reached consensus. What was the problem?

Eventually, I learned the lesson: often in decision-making situations where emotions are running high, what people need most is to be carefully listened to by the decision-makers. That’s all.

At first, this felt dishonest to me. If someone presents their views on a topic and I disagree, shouldn’t I surface that disagreement so we can examine our differences and resolve them? Furthermore, if someone recommends a course of action, and I decide on the opposite, don’t I need to close the loop with them, explain my reasoning and make sure they concur?

Surprisingly, I have concluded that often the correct answer to both questions is “no.” In these situations, what people are looking for is the respect of being heard. You give them that by listening carefully, repeating back to them what you’ve heard to make sure you got it right, and promise to take their input into account. You earn their trust this way, so if you do decide to go in a different direction, they will follow you without complaint.

Should you try to go back and “close the loop,” explaining why you didn’t follow their recommendation, you will find you have reopened the can of worms. You may be able to effectively articulate the logic for your decision, but since they don’t share your authority, responsibilities or all of your information, they are unlikely to get the same gut-feeling of correctness at the end of the logic chain. You will have taken an employee or co-worker who was pleased to have given his/her input and made them uneasy at best, ticked off at worst.

It still surprises me in a way, but listening to one thing and doing another – without closure – is sometimes the best thing to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s