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Spare a minute or two and listen to your employees

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway

By Lisa Ryan

One of the activities I use in my employee engagement training programs is a listening exercise. Participants pair up, and one person is the “speaker” while the other is the “listener.” For a full three minutes, the “speaker” talks about a subject that is comfortable for him or her to share. The “listener” quietly listens without interruption. The listener can ask a total of three questions during the activity, and these inquiries are only to draw out more information from the person speaking. Then they switch roles.

Debriefing this activity is fascinating. Although the people in the “speaker” part might feel a little uncomfortable at first, most participants find if refreshing to chat without the fear of someone cutting them off. Through non-verbal communication — eye contact, head nodding, smiling, and the few questions — they feel heard, many for the first time in a long time. Because of this exchange, the two people feel a real connection with each other.

It reminds me of an episode of “Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon and Penny do a “scientific experiment” to see if two people can be “made” to fall in love. After asking a series of personal questions, the two of them were tasked with looking into each other’s eyes for four minutes. At the end of this time, they were supposed to be in love.

If you watch this scene (here it is on YouTube), notice the actor’s facial expressions as they go through the activity. Yes, there is some humor sprinkled throughout, AND there was a real connection as well. No, Penny and Sheldon did not “fall in love” because of this experiment, but they certainly grew a little closer as a result.

How does this relate to your employee engagement strategy? Listen to your employees. Really listen. When someone walks into your office and wants to talk or ask a question, stop your email, put down the phone, make eye contact and ask, “How can I help?” If you’re on a tight schedule, still give your colleague the courtesy of your complete attention. Let him or her know that you can only spare one minute right now or you don’t have any time to spare because of what you’re working on. Ask if you can talk later – and set a time to do so.

Another video that shows the power of listening is “It’s not about the nail.” When your employees come to you for advice, they don’t always want you to fix their issue — sometimes they just need to vent. With that in mind, ask the question, “Is this something that you want my advice on or do you just need to vent?” If they just need to vent – let them. Face it, they’re not going to heed your advice if they are not open to it.

Think about it — how many times have you paid half-attention to someone while they were rambling on because your thoughts were elsewhere at the moment? When they got done with their rant, they said, “Thanks, I feel better now.” Sometimes all your employees need is that hole in the side of your head. They can thus “cure themselves” by venting. (Of course, if you see their venting becoming a habit, you can look for more productive ways for them to help themselves.)

When your staff members are looking for your advice, give it to them in a way they can handle. Knowing the various personality styles is very helpful for more effective communication. Be supportive and be present when your employees need you. If you want your employees to be committed and loyal to you, it’s up to you to also be there for them when they need you.

Pay attention when you are in conversation with someone. Is this conversation an authentic dialogue or is it two monologues? When you take the time to really listen, to nonverbally encourage the other person to keep talking, and to keep your mind open (and not try to figure out what we’re going to say next), you create better, stronger relationships with your team. The cool thing is – these ideas work in your personal life too.

Lisa Ryan is the founder of Grategy, where she helps organizations create more positive work environments. She is the author of eight books and co-stars in two documentaries: the award-winning “The Keeper of the Keys” and “The Gratitude Experiment.” She can be reached at (216) 225-8027 and via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.

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