Back in the day, radios had actual dials which, when turned by hand, scanned across radio frequencies. Much of the sound coming out of the radio was static “noise.” When your ear heard recognizable sounds (“signal”) like voices or music, you slowed down the dial spinning and moved the dial back and forth until you found the optimal place where there was maximum signal and minimum noise.
Nowadays the radio frequency in many places is so jam packed you can’t find much radio noise at all, especially considering advances in electronics that allow us to scan only the most powerful stations and avoid hearing the static noise. Add in satellite radio and internet radio and the combination of good technology combined with so many choices means that we can listen to crystal clear signals pretty much on demand.
The question that’s left unanswered, and largely unasked, is just what should we listen to? And relatedly, should we even listen to anything at all? With radio stations it’s easy–you just follow your mood. Want to hear some political hothead ranting about “them”? Rather listen to some mellow reggae? Or maybe you’d just like to drive and listen to the wind. Whatever mood you’re in, you can generally find a station to fit. Personally, sometimes it’s even tough to decide which station to tune into–there’s even a name for this indecision triggered by many options: the tyranny of choice.
It can be equally intimidating as managers. We’ve got a multitude of “gurus” coming at us, often with conflicting advice. Everyone has an opinion and this month’s flavor can be in direct opposition to last month’s flavor. The best-selling business book this year may contradict the wisdom of the ages that last year’s best seller said could never be overturned. I know there are managers who buy into a particular outlook and doggedly stick with it. Others display a kind of management attention deficit disorder and jump from one idea to the next without ever really mining the depths.
Away from the bookshelf, and back in the office, managers have real live people jockeying for their limited time and attention. Sometimes it seems like I spend all my time listening to others–questions, suggestions, demands and gripes. All this on top of a load of paperwork and meeting schedules that have no end.
Despite all this noise and all the technical solutions that allow us to construct digital walls between us and other people, I have become convinced of the importance of being present and truly listening to others. The “others” may be my wife or kids, my boss, my customers or my staff. Doesn’t really matter, they’re all important in their context. I can’t think of any good substitutions for my focused and undivided attention on another live person.
Most of us, including me, have spent so much time learning how to “multitask”, and we’ve put such great value on being good at it, that we’re pretty uncomfortable with just sitting and listening. Sittting and listening doesn’t mean formulating a response in your head while you wait for the other person to take a breath. It means simply listening and giving their words some devoted and considered thought before responding. If you aren’t used to doing this, you may cause a longer than usual pause in the conversation, which can freak out the other person. You can tell when the other person is freaked out because they’ll start trying to fill the empty space with words. If the words don’t add value to what’s already been said, then you might try asking the other person if they’re in a hurry. If they are, let them go and tell them you’ll get back to them. If they aren’t, encourage them to slow down and let them know that silence might fill the room while you consider your response. Enough of this and they’ll get used to it.
However you spend your time with employees, whether it’s checking in for a few minutes every day, or whether it’s a weekly conference call (turning the light on myself, here) try ditching all other distractions. Leave the mobile phone in your coat, shut the lid on the laptop, turn your chair away from the computer, ignore the ringing telephone, ditch your preconceptions and be wholly present to the other person.
If someone drops by your office and you’ve got a conference call starting in two minutes, give ’em 30 seconds, but let them know you’ve got the call starting and that you’ll follow up with them. That’s a world of difference from pretending to listen, while straightening papers on your desk until the call starts.
I’ve rambled enough. I guess my big point is to encourage managers to slow it down and take a minute to tune into what their folks are saying. It’s not a silver bullet, though. If you haven’t been tuning in, and you suddenly start trying, don’t be surprised if you get a bit of a cold shoulder. You’ll have to work through it, but if you’re authentic and not just posing, you’ll start to make real connections that last and can be built upon.