Opening Your EARS to a Better Workplace

You approach an employee about a project you delegated to them whose deadline has long passed. You’re definitely OMG-peeved. But, ever the peacemaker, you summon up your inner Buddha to politely ask that they approach the task with a greater sense of urgency.

They respond by flatly telling you the deadline was unrealistic — and, they add, rolling their eyes to the ceiling, you’re way too pushy. You stomp off, mumbling something about pushing and second-story windows and wouldn’t that be nice.
More than what we say, how we listen defines our workplace persona. Our relationships with coworkers, our general reputation, and, most important, our ability to squash conflict are all byproducts of our talent (or lack thereof) in listening, understanding and empathizing with those around us.
Becoming a good listener, unfortunately, doesn’t usually top the list of priorities for most workers. Many of us treat work like a tryout for the high school debate team — impressing ourselves with our own articulation, as if we were somehow racking up points for oratorical wizardry.
Speaking is indeed important. No one will take you seriously if you stumble through your sentences like Jethro from the Beverly Hillibillies, or dress your speech in the hot-pink, valley-girl monosyllables of Paris Hilton. (Note: “That’s hot” is not a viable response to a coworker’s presentation … or anything else, for that matter.) Speaking nonetheless remains a small sliver of an effective communications skill-set.
In the introductory example, neither person listened properly to the dilemma. When told the deadline was unrealistic, you took off with your hurt-feelings like the office roadrunner instead of probing further into the complaint. And, maybe you are too pushy, but that personal shortcoming has zero bearing on the timeliness of the project’s completion. Like gorillas from opposing groups, both participants arched their backs and turned a business problem into a territorial beef, leaving the issue unresolved and unattended.
“Most arguments,” confirms author Jim Dugger in Listen Up: Here’s What’s Being Said, “start because one or both of the participants are not listening empathically and nonjudgmentally.”
Here are some surefire tips Dugger provides on listening that’ll take the “dis” out of dysfunctional workplace interaction:
  1. Criticize the issue or behavior, not the person. You may be the John Wayne of steel-hearted emotion, but most people, especially at work, are hyper-sensitive to criticism. When lobbing a complaint, remember to focus on the issue, not the person you feel is responsible. Don’t listen to the ghosts of a coworker’s past miscues during heated conversations about mistakes.
  1. Realize that each person has worth. Listen hotshot, just because someone works in the mailroom doesn’t mean they’ve stamped away their soul. To effectively listen and empathize to anyone, you must first realize that everyone — every single person in your office — deserves equal respect and sustained attention.
  1. Avoid absolutes — right/wrong, bad/good. The workplace is fertile ground for surplus superlatives, fulsome flattery and garrulous genuflection. “We offer the best services around!” “You’ll throw your life away if you use our competitor!” Unless you’re writing marketing copy or drafting the company newsletter, rhetorical pom-poms are rarely effective communication-tools.Conversely, when approaching a dilemma in conversation, don’t start pontificating about the impending apocalypse. Everyone else realizes the minor leak isn’t going to sink the ship — and no one will trust your judgment or input if you’re constantly going overboard.
  1. Send “I” messages or “I feel” messages. It’s awfully tempting to let someoneknow your opinion is shared by the entire department. But no one enjoys being ganged up on. Limit your statements to personal reflections. This will have the added benefit of personalizing your message.
  1. Engage your brain and suspend your emotions. Let’s keep it real — if you take even minimal pride in your work, criticism feels like a dagger to your competence. Suspending your emotional response is probably the single most difficult rule to adhere; it’s also the single most important. Let your brain do the legwork during conflict, not your heart or wounded ego, and you’ll see problem issues more clearly.

Remember: your office isn’t the Senate floor. Devote less effort to becoming the picture of prolix perfection, and more energy to opening your ears to empathize with those around you.

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