SHRM 2014 Annual Conference

The power of listening is evident in engaged workplaces that are open to positive transformation. (Photo via Highways Agency, Flickr)


“Come Prepared, Leave Transformed” is the theme of the SHRM 2014 Annual Conference, which continues through this Wednesday, June 25. This theme got us thinking about the power of listening in employee engagement — and how listening is the first step toward transformation.
The late Karl A. Menniger, psychiatrist and pioneering mental health advocate, wrote a beautiful passage about the importance of listening to the overall process of change.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

Listening isn’t just for friends, or between psychiatrist and patient. In the recent SHRM video, “Transformation Requires Listening,” an HR manager illustrates with a personal story how vital listening is in the workplace, too.
Teresa Vaughn, vice president of HR at Johnson & Johnson Insurance, describes an encounter she had with one of her company’s longtime truck drivers. Noticing he was obviously in distress, she invited him into her office to talk, asked him what was going on and was surprised to learn, among other details, that he was illiterate. That day, she connected him with the right resources and help. Much later, she ran into him at a SHRM chapter meeting and was delighted to learn he was the speaker that day as a representative with a nearby college’s literacy program.
Not only can he read now, he was speaking in front of groups about his journey out of illiteracy.
“It made me feel awesome about what I did,” she reflects in the video. It all started when she took the time to listen.
Vaughn’s story illustrates, on a micro level, why listening is the first step toward positive workplace transformation. Multiply her story by the number of employees at your company and the interactions you have with each other, and you’ll see how the power of listening works on a macro level to build an engaged, happy workforce.
Active listening, which we’ve covered before, engages a conversation by requiring the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker. This is a fantastic way to focus on what’s being said and respond to the speaker without adding your own opinion or value judgment.
Consider these situations in which active listening or other types of listening are useful in a workplace setting and can actually help transform your company culture into one of empathy, creativity and collaboration.
Sounding Board — Leaders are expected to quickly find solutions to a company’s toughest problems. So, what happens if you take off your Solutions Hat and just listen? Vanessa Merit Nornberg, founder of the jewelry company Metal Mafia, wrote last year in Inc. about how valuable it can be to listen “without always trying to fix things.” She reflected, “Smart people are usually able to work out their own solutions, but they still need a sounding board from time to time, so they can vent a little and perform their own self-check before re-finding the path to productivity.”
Anger Defuser — Always remember, when confronted with an angry customer, employee or coworker, that simply listening is your best bet for calming the situation. “People often become angry or aggressive only after a lengthy period of not feeling acknowledged,” according to this Eastern Washington University guide to defusing anger. You may be shocked by how effective the power of listening is to cooling down an angry person. More often than not, the person will become reasonable, rational and even apologetic after you give them the space to blow off steam.
Gratitude Builder — Nothing beats saying “thanks,” but you really build a culture of gratitude with employees and coworkers when you also show genuine interest in their work. Everyone wants to feel pride in their work and wants to know that their work makes a difference to others. Give them the space to do this: ask specifics about their favorite projects, what they’re especially proud of and where they think improvements are needed. Transformation begins with conversations like this, so start asking — and listening!
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