The Art of Listening with Respect

Written by Debbie Boone, CVPM. Originally published on VitusVet.com.

As a consultant I tend to join and participate in multiple veterinary management social media groups. Often, I read rants or questions from practice leaders sharing staff or client dilemmas. Many times, I read and admire the replies from the seasoned practice managers and think – what excellent insight! Other times I (and those seasoned managers) read the harsh “write ‘em up or “fire them!” responses and cringe. Why?  – Because these replies indicate that these managers would rather punish than listen.

Humans by their very nature are self-centered and possessive – think of the 2-year-old that says,” mine!” to every toy. But over time humans also learned that they are more successful when they work in concert. It is our nature to develop “tribes” just as wolves “pack”, geese “gaggle” and whales “pod”. These animal social groups form their own norms and rules. It is the same with veterinary teams. But the culture that develops is determined by the leaders and when we have leaders who don’t listen, we have a culture that is dysfunctional and eventually toxic.

New staff hired into a positive culture will soon assimilate the same rules, norms and communication behaviors as the rest of the group. These groups will also self-manage to a great extent and will create accountability among themselves, leaving the leadership to work on big picture tasks that improve the business. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. New hires with good attitudes can easily be dragged down to the toxic level of the “pack’ or they will quickly feel so uncomfortable that they quit for greener pastures. Instead of self-management these groups are quick to tattle and backstab and any attempt to correct others is considered overstepping instead of helping a team member to learn.

So how does listening come into the picture?

Listening is a learned skill. We hear – a train whistle, traffic, phones ringing and people speaking. But when we listen, we are actively paying attention to what others are saying, we are reading their body language and empathizing with their condition. The ability to empathize and “mind read” are uniquely human. Nicholas Epley, author of the book ‘Mindwise” says that, “Our species has conquered the Earth because of our ability to understand the minds of others, not because of opposable thumbs or handiness with tools….Managers motivate their employees when they have some sense of what their employees want and need.”

Successful managers LISTEN to their staff.

If you remember playing Simon Says when you were a child, you will remember how intently you listened to the commands so you wouldn’t lose the game. This is ACTIVE LISTENING. The act of “being totally present” for others. Many times, in the social media groups I will suggest that the managers “be Curious not Furious” and start to ask questions of their problem staff member about the cause of their actions. Sometimes we find there is a problem at home we are not aware of and can offer help. Other times it may be another team member whose actions have caused this person distress. Or it can even be a lack of training that is resulting in subpar work.

We also need to listen when our staff is sharing examples of the disrespectful behavior of others and take immediate action. Nothing is more difficult that firing a talented employee who you cannot seem to coach out of their negative behavior. I have been there.  But I also know that when these people are released to find happiness elsewhere, the rest of your team breathes a sigh of relief and both culture and workflow improve.

In their book, The Cost of Bad Behavior, the authors surveyed thousands of workers in all disciplines. They discovered 80% believed they got NO Respect at work. But the solution is there. LISTEN.

I think we can take a lesson from Microsoft who made the Fortune list of top companies to work for 11 years in a row. “They use these values:

  • Listen to understand other’s perspectives without interrupting
  • Integrate diverse perspectives when making decisions
  • Communicate critical feedback respectfully
  • Consider the experience and knowledge of others
  • Do not disparage others
  • Assume the best motives in others
  • Ask difficult questions to discover answers, but never demean
  • Never act in a manner that could be perceived as threatening, intolerant or discriminatory
  • Demonstrate more interest in finding the right answer that in defending a position
  • Maintain objectivity when conflict arises “ *

*quoted from The Cost of Bad Behavior, by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath

If you want to enjoy your work as a manager, if you want to have a team that you can trust and empower, if you want to have “raving fan” clients, then learn to really listen to your team (and clients) and discover their wants and needs.  Your life will improve and so will your business.

When you listen, people feel they “matter” and that is everything…

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That is the essence of inhumanity.”  – George Bernard Shaw