Stop Helping and Start Listening

August 23, 2015
Mary Jo Asmus

As I walked into the leader’s office, I noticed that something was off. He seemed upset. This man was a phenomenal leader; normally upbeat, beloved, respected, professional and smart. He was almost always calm and composed – but not today.

As I listened, a story unfolded of a situation that he handled (as he always did) with dignity and great integrity. But others who had supported him in the past betrayed him on his current efforts. He said he was angry and confused. I asked him what he would like to achieve in our time together. He rolled right past the question and continued with his story, a message to me that I may have missed.

My great urge now was to help him. Soothing words of comfort came to my lips, begging to be released. A wave of thoughts on the advice I could give him that might help ease his discomfort swirled about in my brain.

I recognized my usual pattern of wanting to fix what seemed broken, took a deep breath and just listened. I know that sometimes, just listening is the right thing to do but I don’t always do it. This time I did.

Did I provide value for him? Yes indeed. At the end of the hour, I asked if he got what he needed, and heard a resounding “Yes, I just needed you to listen”. I wasn’t a perfect listener but I caught myself and self-corrected to do what he needed in those moments.

The lessons for leaders are:

Knowing yourself is essential. Workplaces are microcosms of life with all of its drama. Knowing how you react to emotion is important because you’ll be exposed to it. Observe your natural tendency when emotions are high. Do you want to flee, get angry or clam up? We all have our hardwired habits that may show up in excess when someone becomes emotional.

Meet people where they are. It’s all too easy to get caught up in what you want, especially in emotional conversations. In this scenario, I wanted to soothe and to fix. These are my normal “go to” hard-wired behaviors when someone is hurting, but they may only serve my own discomfort. Providing value in the way that you normally do may not be the key. You can ask others what they want from you and you may get an answer, but you may not; your fallback position of just listening may be the best thing you can do.

Listening can be of value. You can’t fix people. In emotional situations, soothing is often not what they want. Your advice and problem-solving may not be heard or appreciated. Surprisingly, one of the simplest and most valuable things you can do is to just listen. It’s difficult, but it’s the right thing in many emotionally-charged conversations.

Knowing your habitual reactions and choosing an alternative one that’s more appropriate (like listening) may not be what you want, but it may be just the right solution for others in emotional moments.

More From Mary Jo Asmus

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Finding Meaningful Development Opportunities for Others

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.

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