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

Listening and Hearing vs Understanding

November 10, 2012

We have all experienced the phenomenon where we have tried to explain something to an individual who appears to be paying full attention. The individual was alert and nodded many times giving the impression of understanding. Later on we found that the individual internalized almost none of the information we were trying to convey. This article explains why this happens and offers some antidotes.

To internalize a message, one must not only pay attention, but the information must sink into the brain enough for recall and action. Listening can be happening even though there is little comprehension. A typical example of this occurs when dealing with two people who have different primary languages.

I noticed this phenomenon often when working with technical people in Asia. They were able to understand English, so we used that for communication. They would nod and give verbal cues (like “uh huh”) when I talked, but later would not be able to recall the meaning. They were being polite and did not want to upset me, so they took in what they were able to without internalizing the message.

Here is a gag from the famous erstwhile Goon Show on BBC. The dialog that illustrates the problem is between Minnie and Henry, an old feeble couple:

Henry: Minnie, Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.
Minnie: What’s that Henry? I can’t understand you.
Henry: Oh geesh. I said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.” Now, Minnie, did you understand me that time.
Minnie: Yes! You said, “Cambiar las sábanas en número 23.”
Henry: Very good! Well then, why don’t you do it?
Minnie: What does it mean, Henry?

There are many methods to help determine if a person has internalized a message, but each one has the potential to deceive or annoy either party. Here are six ways to do it along with the caveats for each method:

1. Repeat the information – Describe the same information paraphrasing yourself so the listener hears the instruction twice but with a different style. If the instruction involves an action, then a demonstration may help. If there is an abstract concept, then using the VAK model will help. This is where you frame the information in a way consistent with the listener’s primary channel of taking in information (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). This repetition style can feel pretty cumbersome to the speaker and the listener, but having a real verification is the most secure way of determining if the person listened, heard, and understood the instructions.

2. Look for body language – If someone has good eye contact and following skills (like grunting, nodding, or saying “uh-huh”) you have a good indication the person is paying attention. If the person is texting or otherwise gazing off into space with a blank look, you should assume little information is being internalized until you confirm otherwise. But paying attention does not guarantee understanding, so you can be fooled.

3. Ask a question – This method assumes the person has heard and internalized the content. By asking a simple question, you can get more information about the level of communication going on, but it is also not sufficient because of the phenomenon described above with Minnie. The person may be able to recite the words, but not really understand their true meaning.

4. Parrot the information – Have the other person repeat back the essence of your message. Here you are requesting the person do “reflective listening.” This is an excellent way to test the level of understanding, but it can be annoying, especially if you have a lot of information to convey. One antidote in the case of instruction is to get the person to actually do the task.

5. Ask for a demonstration – if the information is an actionable instruction, like how to adjust a carburetor, then you can ask the individual to show you the process you just described.

6. Observe the person over time – To get a true reading of the level of understanding, the best method is to monitor what the person does for several repetitions after the information was shared. The caveat here is that if the person does not do the activity right, it could be a motivation problem rather than a failure to understand.

7. Write it down – Having a written set of instructions or a check list is an obvious way to enhance the information transfer process. Multiple exposures to the same information using different modes will make the information stick better, and a written document can be referred to anytime in the future if memories start to fade.

When addressing a group, you will have different levels of understanding all around the room. One person may grasp 95% of your meaning while another may understand only 5% of what you intended to convey. The distraction factor will be different from person to person. One individual may appear to be listening, but he is daydreaming about something completely separate from your conversation. On the flip side, a person may be making little eye contact and multitasking, like texting a friend, but actually be listening carefully to your information. How do you know who got the message and who did not?

There is no 100% sure way to confirm people got the message unless you want to devise some kind of written or online verification test. For extremely important instructions, like some kind of emergency or medical procedure, it would be wise to go the formal route. For unimportant topics, like which pizza box has the pepperoni, the need to confirm the message was understood is less important.

Good communication involves work. It is not wise to just expect people to internalize some instructions fully based on just one verbal description. It is imperative to have a verification process in place that will ensure full understanding. The extra time and effort are well worth it because there will be far fewer disappointments.

Leaders: Be Smart, Act Dumb

October 2, 2011

In his famous program, “Effective Negotiating,” Chester A. Karrass, makes the observation that, in negotiations, often appearing dumb is a great strategy. The idea is that acting naïve causes the other party to fill in some blanks with information that may ultimately be helpful to you in the negotiation. Conversely, acting as if you know everything is usually a bad strategy, because you end up supplying too much information too early in the conversation. This habit gives your opponent in the negotiation a significant advantage.

As I work with leaders in organizations of all sizes, a similar observation could be made about leadership. Being dumb is sometimes smart, and being too smart is often dumb. Let’s examine some examples of why this dichotomy is a helpful concept.

To make enlightened decisions, leaders need good information. It sounds simple, but in the chaos of every day organizational issues, it is sometimes difficult to determine which set of information is true. Rather than blurting out their preconceived notion of what is going on, if leaders would simply act a little confused, like the brilliant detective Colombo, they would elicit far more information from other people. The way to execute this strategy is simple. Refrain from making absolute statements, and ask a lot of open ended questions. This draws out alternate points of view from individuals and allows the leader to hear many nuances before tipping his or her hand.

When leaders display hubris, and expound their perspective on every issue before others have a chance to voice their ideas, it stifles collaboration and creativity. Therefore, being smart is often a dumb strategy. Of course, no rule of thumb works in every situation. Leaders need to know when the time is right to divulge their opinion. Unfortunately, due to over active egos, most leaders like to weigh in on issues far too early. This colors objective conversation and cuts off interesting alternate perspectives.

The same logic holds when making decisions after the information has been gathered. If leaders would say, “I wonder what we should do,” instead of, “Here is what we have to do,” they would draw out the best ideas available. Smart is dumb and dumb is smart in terms of getting a smorgasbord of options from which to choose.

The antidote to this problem is simple. Leaders need to understand this dynamic and catch themselves in the act. By being alert to the dangers of advocating too early, leaders can improve their batting average at allowing everyone to enter the conversation at an appropriate level. Sometimes in a crisis situation, it may be necessary for a leader to be highly directive and quick on the draw. Usually, it is better for the leader to allow conversation around sensitive issues, and then work with people to find the best solution.

If you are a leader, it is important to catch yourself on this issue and begin to train yourself to have more patience and improve your listening skills. It has been said many times that the Lord gave us two ears and one mouth, because we should listen twice as much as we speak. Many leaders do not understand this simple logic, and it works to their detriment. They are dumb because they are too smart.

Leading Without Bullying

November 21, 2010

As I was having breakfast today, I was gazing out the window watching some robins chase each other around the back yard. I started thinking of the various animal species and the fact that in every group of animals, a certain amount of bullying behavior goes on. It is a “survival of the fittest” world in the animal kingdom. Maybe that is why we humans often exhibit some form of bullying behavior in order to get our way.

Bullying has become a key concept in our society. We see forms of it in every area from the school yard to Congress, from the boardroom to the barroom. We universally abhor the behavior in school kids, but yet we often see it practiced unchallenged as adults.

We know the incredible destructive nature of bullying because all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives, and we know it does not feel good. We know it leads to suicide in rare cases, especially in children, because they do not know how to cope with the powerless feeling of being bullied. They would simply rather die.

It is also true that each one of us has been guilty of bullying another person at some point. If you wish to deny that, you need to think harder. Some of us have played the role of the bully more than others. Some managers have it down to a fine art. Unfortunately, people in power positions have a greater temptation to use bullying because it is a way to obtain compliance. The problem is that, in organizations, mere compliance is not going to get the job done.

Organizational bullying is not confined to verbal abuse or strong body language. It also occurs when headstrong managers become so fixated on their own agenda that it renders them effectively deaf to the ideas or concerns of others. They become like a steamroller and push their agenda with little regard for what others think. In this area, there is a fine line between being a passionate, driving leader who really believes and advocates for the goal versus one who is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view.

While we are mammals, we have a more developed brain and greater power to reason than lesser species. If we use that power, we should realize that bullying behavior usually leads to the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. It may seem like a convenient expedient, but it does not work well in the long run.

If you are an elk, you are only thinking of the situation at hand and reacting to a threat to your power or position. You are not thinking longer term about relationships and possible future alliances, nor do you care how your behaviors might inspire other elk to perform at their best. The aptitude to plan and care is what separates man from the animal world.

Applying this logic in an organization is pretty simple. Managers who bully their way to get people to do their bidding are actually building up resentment and hostility. While this may produce short term compliance, it works against objectives long term. By taking a kinder approach, managers can achieve more consistent results over the long haul and obtain full cooperation from people rather than simple compliance.

Here are ten tips to reduce the tendency to bully other people:

1. Ask if you would want to be treated this way – Simply apply the Golden Rule.

2. Observe the reaction and body language in other people – If they cower or retreat when you bark out commands, you are coming on too strong.

3. Be sensitive to feedback – It takes courage to listen when someone tells you that you are being a bully. Ask for that feedback, and listen when it is given.

4. Speak more softly and slowly – Yelling at people makes them feel bullied even if that is not your intention. When you get excited, lower rather than raise your voice.

5. Ask for opinions often – Managers who seek knowledge as opposed to impressing their brilliance or agenda on others have less tendency to be bullies.

6. Think before speaking – Ask yourself if this is the way to gain real commitment or just temporary compliance. Is it good for the culture?

7. Reduce the number of absolutes you use – Saying “You never do anything right” cannot possibly be true. Soften absolutes to allow for some reason.

8. Listen more and talk less – When you are shouting at people you cannot possibly hear their rationale or their point of view. Hear people out; do not interrupt them.

9. Don’t attack or abuse the weak – Just because you know an individual is too insecure to fight back is no reason to run over him or her. It only reveals your own weakness.

10. Write your own epitaph – Regarding your relationships with people close to you, how would you like to be remembered after you are gone?

My breakfast observation for today was that animals have a hard time following the Golden Rule, and there is a bully in every group. We humans have the power to actually modify our behavior to think more strategically and do things that are not only right for now, but right for the long term. Caring for people creates a culture of trust that is sustainable.