On my way home from our recent vacation, I watched a father interacting with his three young children. It was 5:30 am at the Los Angeles International Airport where we were all enduring layovers enroute to our destinations. The children were in the 3-8 years of age and were very excited about their trip. Being typical young children, they were pummeling their father with questions. When do we leave? What kind of airplane will we fly on? When will we get there? How fast does the airplane fly? You would have thought, given the very early hour, that he might have been impatient with them. But that didn’t happen. He gave them his total attention and patiently answered all of their questions. Only when they were done asking questions and playing independently, did he take out his phone. And, when they came back and asked more questions, he first put his phone away and gave them his total attention.
An interesting thing to observe in the children was their behavior throughout all of this. They didn’t whine or complain or nag – they didn’t have to. Since they received their father’s attention and focus, and got their questions answered, the children behaved well. Once their questions were answered, they settled into playing independently or watching a video. The father’s message was clear to his children – you are the most important thing to me.
Their father could have ignored them – and focused on his email or his ‘to-do’ items. He might even have thought that if he ignored them, they would just go away. I see this same type of scenario play out in the workplace time and time again – especially in boss/subordinate relationships. A subordinate comes to their boss with questions and/or an issue. However, the boss has a whole list of things that must be accomplished during that day – and they feel that they don’t have time to listen. The resulting behavior is usually one of giving partial attention, or no attention, to the speaker – hoping that the speaker will just go away. The boss may also assume that they understand what the talker wants and give problem solving (or a full solution) before the talker gets out the first sentence.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve anything. While the boss may believe that this can save time – it rarely does. The speaker, not having felt heard, will likely be back – saying the same things as the first time. They keep coming back again and again with the same comments – leaving the boss feeling like they are a new cast member in the movie Ground Hog Day. Any solutions given might be incorrect – or, perhaps the talker didn’t want a solution at all. Worst of all, the talker may give up on their boss as a listener – which chips away at the trust the individual has for their boss and lessening their relationship. After all, if your boss can’t give you a little dedicated listening, then why go back? Any of these behaviors send a loud and clear message – the talker isn’t respected more, and is less important, than whatever the boss is doing or needs to get done.
The right response is to take a lesson from the airport father – put away your distractions, stop what you are doing, and give the talker your total attention. Then, ask them what they need – a good listener, problem solving, brainstorming, etc. This will help you respond appropriately. While this may seem like it takes extra time – it only does upfront. If the talker really feels heard, the additional times they come back looking for listening can be eliminated. When they, like the children, get what they need in listening – they frequently are able to get back to work and/or come up with their own solutions to issues.
Bryant H. McGill said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Time to evaluate our own listening. Are you sending a message of respect? Are you sending a message of caring? Are you sending the message that the speaker is important enough to you to put aside everything and just listen? If not, you can start now – give the talker 10 minutes of your undivided attention. You’ll be pleased with the message you send and the results that get produced.