The Best Way to Help is Be a Good Listener


September 8, 2010

I overheard an exchange between a mother and young child at a store the other day.  The child was trying to communicate with the mom and the mom said, “The best way to help is be a good listener.”  The child began to talk and the mom quickly and ferociously cut her off and said in a sharp, condescending voice, “Oh, you’re already not being a good listener!  The best way to help is to be a good listener.”  This went back and forth for several minutes with both the mom and the daughter becoming louder and more firm in their response.  Finally, the daughter gave up.  You know what?  No one won.

That’s right.  In her zeal to teach her child that the best way to help is by being a good listener, she completely missed the fact that she was NOT LISTENING.  Now, I’m not the perfect mom all the time, just about 50% of the time.  Seriously, I know that little ones can try your patience.  But the point is that we spend so much time trying to teach someone else what is “right” that we don’t do it ourselves.  It’s no different in the workplace.

How many times do we see managers telling an employee the same thing over and over only to have the employee do something completely different?  How many employees have to come to HR to complain that their manager never listens to them.  Then, HR has to try to give recommendations on how to bridge the gap in that conversation.  I’d say it’s almost a daily routine.  What we need to do is tell managers to start talking less and listen more.

If an employee is not doing something “right”, instead of telling him that the manager could say, “Hey, I see how you’re doing XYZ.  Tell me how that is working for you.”- This allows the employee a chance to say why they do something a certain way, aka have their voice heard.  Then, the manager can follow up with something like, “That seems like a good reason.  Have you ever thought of doing XYZ to enhance that?”  Now you’re in a dialogue and the employee is far more likely to embrace the suggestion.

By taking time to really listen to an employee you will achieve better results in terms of:

  • Engagement- Employees who have their voice heard and then see those ideas validated will have higher levels of engagement with you and the department.
  • Teaching and Coaching- When you listen to the employee, you have a greater chance that you can teach them why something is important to handle in a certain way.  They will be more accepting of process changes, procedure changes, or other change happening in the department.  This is also the way to give them opportunity to voice their concerns and you the opportunity to coach them through it.
  • Learning- Even the highest level executives are continuous learners.  By taking that extra time to listen to an employee, you will definitely learn something.  It will spark new ideas, new ways to communicate, help you develop your own skill as a leader, and more.

So, the next time you are coaching your leaders, make sure they understand that by pausing to listen to the employees, they will reap the rewards.  What other techniques do you use to convince leaders that listening is one of the most valuable tools they have?  Share it in the comments.


  • What an important topic. I got a clear visual (and audio) on that mother daughter scene and am now guiltily scanning my memory for similar interactions with my own kids. I couldn’t agree more that there’s a real listening gap out there, in the workplace and at large. I think there are other ways to help, however – it shouldn’t end with listening if you’re actually in a position to help:

  • Sometimes what a superior is really trying to say when they are repeatedly telling the subordinate that they are “not listening” in a situation like you had described is that they don’t care what the subordinate has to say; the superior is right and the subordinate is wrong.

    I don’t know how I would have handled the situation if I were the mum in the situation you had described. I won’t turn this into a post about parenting, as I know nothing about this.

    Generally, it seems in a situation that the supervisor isn’t listening, it seems that the supervisor “knows better” and doesn’t need any input a subordinate has to give. After all, the boss is the boss, right? That was always my experience, anyway…

    I would have to say that maybe coaching the supervisors to try and be open to new ways of doing things and maybe giving pointers as to why the subordinates’ methods may or may not work. But staying open to new ways of doing things may boost productivity.

    Of course in my situation, I may just have to become the owner to get the things I want utilised and implemented ;^)

    Good stuff, as always.

  • Trish – may sound too simple – but I suggest that all the managers that work for me have a 45 minute “1 on 1” per month with their direct reports – 15 to discuss objectives, 15 for manager observations/feedback, 15 for the employee to share observations/feedback – this says their input matters, that they have the managers ear (and thus the company)
    Most people want the chance for a dialogue and exchange with their organization – I remind leaders and managers that for the people that work for them THEY ARE the company

    thanks for the good thoughts as always

  • In most cases, “be a good listener” is the advisee’s way of saying “stop talking.” They are looking to speak at, not converse with. Sad but true.

    I’ve tried to give “easy to use” advice to managers who don’t grasp the concept behind communication. Their assignment was to make sure whenever they talked with one of their team, before they could respond to something, they had to ask a question first. A great habit to pick up, and it really led to some meaningful discussions. Plus, nothing says “I’m listening” like questions.

Comments are closed.

ca. 2000 --- Man Putting Fingers in Ears --- Image by © Duncan Smith/Corbis
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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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