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Leader's Digest: Words and Feelings

From his days directing Missouri’s Christian Hospital EMS a decade ago to his current work as a consultant and development specialist, Chris Cebollero has learned enough about leadership to have written multiple successful books about it. This series excerpts his Ultimate Leadership: 10 Rules for Success. For more see  

Rule #6: Stop Listening to What Employees Are Saying

Stop listening to what employees are saying and instead be more aware of your employees’ feelings. In Rule #1 we talked about emotional intelligence. One of the five components of emotional intelligence is empathy. I remember back when I was a member of the workforce, there were times when leaders did not listen to my ideas, or I didn’t have the right equipment to do my job. I remember what it was like to have poor leadership and thinking that when my time to be a leader came, I would do a better job. In reality, I didn’t start out doing a better job than the poor managers I’d remembered from my past. I was worse!

It wasn’t until the realization that I wasn’t giving my workforce what they needed to be successful that I changed. I had to start over and actually learn how to be an active listener. Just because you’re listening to the words spoken doesn’t mean you’re really actively listening to the message. 

Empathize and Encourage

You need to take into account both the words and the nonverbal messages being sent when someone is communicating with you. Identify the feelings and emotions that are coming through during the active listening process. Being aware of other people’s emotions is very important when you’re talking with somebody. 

Don’t be afraid to ask others for their opinions. This will make them feel valued. There may be times when you need to bring in a third party to help mediate during times of challenge. You may not be able to get employees to understand your point, or you may not understand the gravity of their situation. This is where a third party can assist. 

Your role as a leader is to be there when employees need to bend your ear. Appreciate that your people trust you enough to come to you and seek your guidance. They may say, “I need your help or guidance,” or they may ask, “How would you deal with this customer complaint?” Regardless of the reason, when someone comes to you, show them your appreciation. This is what helps make a connection between people. Put yourself in their shoes; always be encouraging and show a positive attitude. 

When employees seek your counsel, always watch your tone when responding. Sometimes we are caught up in the day and can forget how important this meeting is for the employee, and we respond in a harsh tone. This can be very damaging to your relationship with that employee. If this occurs, make certain you say you’re sorry and let them know it was not personal. 

Resolve Conflict

By listening to every word a person speaks, watching their nonverbal cues, asking questions, and giving appropriate feedback, you will send the message to the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say and want to help them. 

Your body language shows nonverbally that you’re open to listening to what someone is saying to you. Asking questions and making comments essentially communicates the idea that “I can make this work for you. We can fix this and move forward.” 

One of the biggest components of resolving conflict is, once the conversation is over, we need to follow up with that employee to make sure their challenge or problem was really resolved. Many leaders forget this crucial step. 

In a couple of days, ask that employee if they were able to get resolution. If not, as they update you on their progress, assure them you are there for them and ready to assist further. If needed, be the go-between to assist in resolving conflict or meet with other parties. Be the resource that helps them get their issue resolved. 

Be an Engaged Listener

The person speaking deserves 100% of your attention. Watch their body language and look for emotional cues as they speak. Make sure to respond to both their words and the nonverbal information they’re communicating to you. That’s going to help reinforce the message that you’re really listening to them. Don’t forget to respond verbally with a “yes” or an “I see” and smile and nod as appropriate. Those indicate without interrupting that they have your full attention. 

Psychology teaches us we should try to favor our right ear when listening. The reason is, your left brain contains the primary centers for speech and comprehension. Those centers are connected to the right parts of our bodies. 

I also use my posture to show I’m offering someone my complete attention. I sit up straight. I put my work away. 

One of the best practices learned from one of my supervisors was when I would come into his office, he would come from behind the desk and sit with me as I spoke. This was a simple expression of how important my time with him was. It made me realize that my desk is where I do my work, not where I lead from. It was a great lesson and became part of my personal leadership toolbox. 

Maintain a Positive Attitude and Environment

There are times when you can easily tell people are upset, and sometimes the office itself, its impression of authority, makes them upset. When this seems to be the case, one of the things to do is find an alternative place to have the discussion. Walk to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee or find a sitting area outside the department. In many cases this change of environment helps ease tensions. 

One of the things we don’t do well enough as leaders is allow people to finish their thoughts. We’re always interrupting them in conversations. If they’re a “talker,” let them know in the beginning if you only have a couple of minutes right then. Sometimes you may need to say, “Let me get back to you later.” If that’s the decision, make certain you do. 

In the 1972 movie The Godfather, the character Michael says, “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.” Sometimes individuals are going to come into your office very emotional. Maybe they’re angry and want to point a finger at you or the organization. You may become defensive and want to give that attitude right back. Remember the above quote and tell yourself, This is not a personal attack. This is just business.   

Chris Cebollero, NRP, is a senior partner for Cebollero & Associates in St. Louis, Mo. He is a member of the EMS World editorial advisory board. 

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