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Talk less to get your employees to listen

4 min read


Whenever managers talk to me about work issues, the conversation inevitably turns to employees seeming to “not listen.” Evidence? Work is not getting done according to plan. It’s not meeting requirements or not on time, or not getting done at all. I often hear some form of the frustrated plea, “They just need to understand …”

If you relate to this, for the sake of argument let’s presuppose that your employees are reasonably smart people and not making your life miserable on purpose. Let’s take the focus off of why they don’t get it and instead focus on what you can do to change things.

Check your assumptions. You know an assumption is going on when you find yourself thinking, “You’d think (fill in the blank),” as in:

  • You’d think they would know that’s a high priority.
  • You’d think they would realize since I asked for it, I actually need it.
  • You’d think it would be easier to ask for help than cause a delay because he didn’t know the answer.

When I find myself saying “You’d think …” it’s now a trigger for me to “think again.”

Even the best of us can get caught with this. We communicate the way we’ve always done. It mostly works, and then with one person it doesn’t. But, you’d think they would get it. I mean, everyone else has always gotten it before. There are some more assumptions: thinking all people think alike or, think like you.

When you get stuck and find yourself thinking, “You’d think,” ask yourself if they really do know the priority, how much you need whatever or the impact of a delay. What could be standing in the way of that? And then …

Really check for understanding. We think we’re reasonable communicators, presumably speaking the same language. We don’t think too hard about checking for understanding. At most, it’s “Do you understand?”

If you do ask, even if your employee responds with a “yes,” you still really don’t know whether they understand, do you? He might really believe he understands. Or he might be placating you. With most people, this might be all you need to do. And yet, with one employee, you may find yourself frustrated because what ends up being delivered is not what you thought you communicated.

When thinking about what else to try, if you find yourself thinking, “I just need to get them to understand (fill in the blank),” slow down for a moment. You’ve already been trying to “get them to understand.” It’s not working. With your employee, try something like this instead: “Just so we’re on the same page, what do you understand we just agreed to?”

Don’t get hung up on the wording. Do check your attitude. The point is to get their thinking out on the table so you can both see it and work with it.

If you find yourself resisting this …

Check yourself. At this point, you might find yourself thinking one of two things, “I don’t want them to think I’m a micro-manager” or “I shouldn’t have to do this for them.”

Get over it. A big part of your job is to facilitate people getting things done. You don’t have to be a control freak, a nursemaid or a bully about it. Challenge yourself to take your ability to lead to another level. Find a way to advance understanding and inquire about how things are going to get done in a way that is your own.

Those situations when “doing what you’ve always done” is not working — they aren’t going to change with hoping, wishing or judging that it just shouldn’t be that way. Take their performance, and yours, to the next level by examining your own assumptions, getting over yourself and engaging them.

Lead Change contributor Mary C. Schaefer is a speaker, coach, trainer and consultant specializing in creating manager-employee communication breakthroughs and functional and positive work cultures. View and connect with Schaefer via her Re-Imagine Work blog or on Twitter @MarySchaefer.