Successful Supervisor Part 12 – Your Listening Hat

February 5, 2017

I once had a manager who was highly analytical. He was a whiz with numbers and data, but he had a weakness when it came to fully hearing people when they were talking to him.

I think it was because his brain was capable of thinking at about 10 times the rate that people were able to talk, so there was a lot of available time for him to multitask while he was “listening” to people.

I found it kind of frustrating for a while, but I found a way to vastly improve his ability to absorb what I needed him to hear.

Most of the time, the communication between us was like normal banter, and he could pick up the majority of my messages anyway through observing my body language. I will write about this skill in a future article.

However, sometimes I would have a really important point that I needed him to absorb fully. I would stop talking for a few moments (silence has a way of grabbing a listener’s attention) then I would say, “Now Mark, I need you to put on your ‘Listening Hat’ for the next 30 seconds.” He would nod and give me his full attention while I communicated the important message.

I have studied the quality-of-life surveys of hundreds of companies over the past couple decades. It is part of my contracting process when I do leadership consulting in an organization. Invariably the number one or number two complaint that people in the organization have is poor communication. It is always there near the top of employee concerns.

Of all the communication skills human beings have, we are weakest at listening. The reason is simple; we can process information so much faster than people can talk, so we use the extra processing time to figure out what we are going to say next.

In fact, the majority of our mental capacity while we are ostensibly listening is really focused on getting ready to speak. Therefore, we miss some details that the other person is trying to communicate.

Oh we get the gist of the information and easily make assumptions about the details. These assumptions are sometimes off base, so we get a distorted view of what the communication was all about.

The crime is that we all feel like we have listened well and have absorbed the full detail of what was being sent our way. This is the most significant cause of miscommunication between people, and we are all guilty of doing it.

Probably the best listeners on the planet are people who are mentally or physically challenged so that they are forced to concentrate on what is being said to them to the exclusion of all outside thoughts or distractions. How ironic that people who are severely challenged actually listen better than the rest of us who have our full faculties.

Is there no way out of this conundrum? Thankfully there is. We can all put on an imaginary “Listening Hat” during certain critical conversations, and that practice will allow us to absorb the maximum data when it really counts the most.

The hat is simply a mental image or screening device that allows us to pay “normal listening attention” to most conversations but significantly deepen our listening when it is important. The obvious question is how do we know when it is important?

For a small fraction of the conversations we have in a day, we are dealing with a person who is in a state of high emotion. It may be anything from elation, after he won the lottery, to grief at the loss of his brother. It may be pride at being the first person in the class to solve a complex equation or rage after someone broke into his car.

Whenever the other person is having a peak emotional experience, it is a trigger point to put on your “Listening Hat.” The reason this is important is because you cannot sustain the kind of energy required to listen with maximum intensity all the time.

We know that the human body is capable of performing at amazing levels during an emergency due to the release of adrenaline. That is why a person arriving on the scene of a car that rolled onto a person has the capacity to actually lift the car while others pull out the victim.

Under normal circumstances the hero would never be able to lift a car, yet with enough adrenaline, he was able to do it. If you injected that much adrenalin in his blood stream all day long, he would soon die because the human body is just not capable of surviving that level of stimulation.

Once we know it is time to put on our “Listening Hat,” how do we physically ramp up our ability to listen effectively? We need to go into a much deeper level of listening using three steps as follows:

1. Following or attending the conversation

This means the listener is not multitasking by looking at his cell phone, fiddling with his shoelace, typing a text, or cleaning his nails. Rather he is making good eye contact and showing visible signs of actually hearing the other person. But hearing is not just listening well, so we need to do more.

2. Listening at a deeper level

This means absorbing the information with enough intensity to block out all mental or physical distractions. It means actually thinking about the content and how it fits into the context of the entire message while paying attention to the body language, especially the facial expressions that signal emotions.

In this step you actually visualize every part of the message with enough clarity to perform the third step.

3. Engage in some conversation that indicates your understanding

Think about the content and phrase a question or comment that comes from the heart while showing respect. Here are some ideas of what types of responses might be appropriate depending on the conversation:

o Clarify what the other person wants me to know

o Help me understand the underlying feelings of the other person

o Probe for any potential hidden meanings that may not have been expressed yet

o Make sure we have covered the full breadth of the issue

o Get to the heart of the matter

o Move the conversation forward in a productive way

o Help the person move beyond the venting stage

Doing these three steps will ensure you have listened at a much deeper level than you normally do, and it verifies you understood the other person well enough to verbalize his or her points accurately.

You don’t need to go to this extent of heightened listening all the time, because that level of effort would not be possible in every conversation, but for the few really important conversations, the extra effort pays off in better understanding.

Some precautions or flavoring

There are some precautions when using this technique. Do not be too quick to interject comments or questions of your own. Often if you just pause and listen to the silence for a second or two, the other person will open up more and get deeper into the issues.

If you interrupt the flow too much, it can be annoying to the other person. You can tell if this happens by watching the body language carefully.

Try to avoid just parroting back the information given by the other person. This technique, often called “reflective listening,” can seem phony or clumsy to the other person if overdone and defeat the entire purpose of your deep listening.

Don’t try to assume how a person may be feeling.

The ability to focus on the true message is critical to understanding what people are trying to convey. Supervisors often operate in a noisy area, such as a shop floor, with numerous visual or auditory distractions.

It may be advantageous to get to a less noisy area for serious conversations, but be alert that some people will clam up if brought into an office area. Make sure the other person feels safe in every way when sharing feelings with you.

The whole idea is to fully understand rather than just hear the other person. You cannot possibly build trust with people if you do not understand what they are trying to convey to you.

For supervisors and other leaders, the art of deep listening significantly improves your effectiveness, because you are getting the full message when things are not working correctly.

It takes practice to master listening skills. The more you practice the more second nature it becomes, and your ability to understand others will be significantly enhanced.

The major technique here is to remember to put on your “Listening Hat” when someone in an emotional state wants to talk to you.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

The role of HR in Mergers

June 19, 2011

In any merger or acquisition, one of the most taxed groups is the Human Resources Department. The success of the venture and the health of the resulting merged organization in the future are highly dependent on the skill and dedication of the combined HR unit. It would be tempting to downsize the HR function early in the merger process, since duplicate staff functions are generally trimmed as a result of any merger. That would be a big mistake.

HR has so many different and critical roles during the integration, having to perform them all flawlessly during an extended transition with reduced staff would result in high jeopardy for the business. Let’s look at a sampling of new roles to be played by HR during a merger. These are over and above the normal listing of roles that keep all HR staff hopping in steady state times.

Advocating for the people process during all negotiations

The process leading up to a merger can take many months or even years. During that time, both organizations are expected to run normally, with top performance, because each one is being scrutinized for valuation purposes. The HR staff must keep all elements of the planned merger under wraps for legal reasons while simultaneously analyzing the potential impact of the merger.

Creating uniform policies

HR policies and procedures need to be shaped to the new reality. This involves working with key stakeholders in both units to sort out a steady stream of issues, like flex work plans, vacation plans, salary rationalization, benefits alignment, movement of people, communication systems, and numerous other critical operational decisions. In these decisions, the HR role is that of a pivot player with management and the workforce.

Working to blend the cultures

Historically, when mergers fail to produce expected results, it is often due to the inability of the cultures to blend into a homogeneous hybrid culture. A classic case example of this was the Daimler Chrysler merger where the two cultures never did merge. The more formal style of the Daimler culture and the more free-flowing style of Chrysler made an integration impossible. HR must take the lead at bringing in the appropriate resources (such as teambuilding experts or leadership improvement consultants) early in the integration to keep the two old cultures from becoming calcified and rigid. It is during the integration process that all kinds of dysfunctional and even childish behaviors may become evident at all levels.

Sorting through downsizings

Inherent in most mergers is the ability to trim back on redundant functions in the staff areas and even in production groups. This is a critical issue for any merger process. HR must ensure that any downsizing activity is done fairly and with the appropriate sensitivity to the welfare of impacted individuals. When reductions do occur, it is often the people staying who feel like the true losers, because they need to survive in a working world that sometimes seems untenable. Usually HR is involved in trying to prop up sagging morale before, during, and after downsizing efforts.

Advocating for transparency

Information dissemination during a merger process is a critical element, and HR is usually at least partly involved in the roll out of information. The ultimate level of trust in the merged group will be closely linked to the level of transparency people witness during the various phases. The conundrum between what must be kept under wraps and what can be shared at any point in time is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Eventually all the pieces fit into place and the big picture can be viewed, but along the way it really does matter which piece is played at any point in time. HR takes on many roles from advisor to top management, to conduit for information, to designing communication processes and being a sounding board for feedback.

Training Integration

The Learning Management Systems (LMS) of the two entities are likely to be different. Each group will want to hang onto their familiar way of scheduling and tracking the training activities of their people. Major battles can erupt over the work required to convert from one LMS to a different one. The “victor” is perceived to have “won” over the group that needs to retool. Hard feelings over this issue can last for years. Sometimes a blending of the two systems works well where both groups are called upon to modify their past patterns.

Minimizing distractions

What is the name of the merged unit? If both names of the separate units are in the new name, which one comes first? Which CEO is perceived to be the top dog and which one has to get used to being second in command or needs to leave? What will the logo look like? Who gets to reside in the prime real estate? What outside training group is selected? On and on, the issues seem endless, and what appear to be rather straight forward decisions quickly become emotionally charged.

It is common in a merger to have both parties feel beleaguered and put out by the other party. It is hard to maintain objectivity and the perception of fairness when groups feel they are under attack. What might seem like a fair split of the pain to top managers may feel incredibly lopsided to both groups on the shop floor.
The workload of HR during the entire process from first inkling to full integration is many times what will occur in a steady state operation. That is why it is important to not downsize any seemingly redundant HR resources until full integration and stability have been achieved.