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Make this the Year You Learn to Listen Better

Make this the Year You Learn to Listen Better

By: Brit Poulson, author of The Clarity Compass (Vision Creation Publishing, 2017)

Ask any business leader and they’ll tell you that listening skills are an essential skill of a good manager

I agree, but I think they’re missing an important element. We need to listen more to the deeper intentions of what is being said.  We need to listen carefully to realize the wants and motivations that reside underneath what we and other people are saying. Here’s how to improve your workplace communications

Communication is Personal
Think back to all the meetings you’ve sat through over your career. You’ll likely remember someone speaking up on a topic seemingly unrelated to the discussion at hand. It might even have been you. Why does this happen? The answer is often about much more than a person being off topic.

Practice listening for your own intentions first.  Then you can apply that to understanding the intentions of others. When you speak, there’s a reason. Maybe you want to add new information or a different opinion. But when you listen yourself, you might hear deeper desires: to be seen as part of the group, to subtly express a frustration, or simply to be heard.

Speaking up is an action. What we’re often not listening to is the intention behind it. The relationship between intentions and action is part of being effective in our professional and personal lives. When these elements are in sync, we make progress. When they’re not, we’re often stymied. There are four main reason why:

Adding complexity: Often when we take action, we try to solve too many problems at once. By speaking up at the morning meeting, we may have been trying to address what we felt was a need for a new policy, a problem with a specific individual and a particular conversation we needed to have with that person. In trying to resolve all of these problems at once, we’re likely to solve none.

Work Tip: Focus on the context of the meeting and try to determine the key goals related to the meeting agenda items. If a tangential issue arises for you that needs to be addressed, that might distract everyone from the most important thread. Consider saving your thoughts for later and following up via email or follow-up meetings. 

By being more selective about when we choose to talk, what we choose to say and how we choose to say it, we are practicing crucial skills that will help improve our communications.

Misdirected problems: The way we experience the world can cause us to look in the wrong place for the answers we seek. We all have blind spots, but we deliberately avoid them to circumvent the discomfort of challenging our worldview. Ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, when we steer around our blind spots, we’re only moving further away from a problem that isn’t going anywhere. We’d be better off trying to understand them instead.

Work Tip: Carefully reconsider a difficult project or problem situation from someone else’s point of view, ideally someone involved who may have a very different take than your own. This can be difficult, but try to stay as open as possible to their perspective. It will help you discern between the objective reality of what is really happening versus your subjective interpretation. 

You may discover that you have some particular blind spots that are preventing you from seeing the situation clearly.

Competing intentions: A single statement in a meeting can carry competing intentions.  Our commitments can get in the way of each other, even when they all seem important. 

I had a client who wanted to be CEO of his company, but at the same time didn’t want the overwhelming stress and also wanted to safeguard his time with his family. He engaged in conscious behaviors moving himself toward CEO, but we discovered other behaviors where he was sabotaging himself. He was not listening to his intentions to minimize stress and maintain work life balance.

Work Tip: Are you listening to your various intentions for engaging in the activities of your life? Make a list of several important things in your life outside of work (relationship stress, your kids, an extracurricular activity, etc.). Now think about the many reasons why each activity is important to you. What deeper intentions do they serve in your life? These intentions might include social acceptance, acknowledgement by friends and family, stability and security, etc. 

After listening to your deeper wants around one of the activities, determine if they are “competing.” If they are, give some attention to how you might resolve their conflict. Can you resolve the internal conflict by approaching an activity differently?

Congruent intentions: Of course, multiple intentions can move us toward the same goals. We want to do our jobs well and be paid, productive, respected, successful and liked. 

All of these intentions are congruent and aimed toward the same satisfying result: to have the kind of work experience we desire. But because the scope is so broad, we won’t be as effective in fulfilling our intentions. With too many arrows drawn at once, some of them will miss the target.

Work Tip: Listen to the intentions that might drive you to overcommit. Look back at the list you made in the above exercise. Even if your goals are congruent, do you have too much on your plate? Is that causing you to be distracted and less available for people at work? If so, think about how to resolve the situation. How can your multiple intentions serve each other?

Once you are more familiar with your own intentions, it becomes easier to understand the motivations of others.  So practice observing your intentions. Next time you find yourself speaking, pay attention. When you listen carefully to what’s going on inside, you hear the real reasons you’re talking. 

When you’re fully aware of your intentions, you’ll start recognizing the much deeper and profound needs that have little to do with the meeting but everything to do with the life you want to create for yourself. When we embrace our intentions, a new world of possibilities emerges. 

Author Bio: 

Dr. Brit Poulson is a Seattle-based psychologist and leadership development expert who works with Fortune 500 companies to address the biggest challenges managers face. His work is based on more than 35 years of extensive research, organizational leadership development consulting, and coaching engagements with executives from some of the world’s leading corporations.


In his new book, The Clarity Compass (January 17, 2017), Poulson provides the tools to help professionals overcome roadblocks and settle disputes employing the tools of emotional intelligence and business strategy. 

Dr. Poulson holds a Ph.D. in psychodynamics, Jungian and group psychology. He can be reached at brit.poulson@clarity-compass.com or at clarity-compass.com, on Facebook at TheClarityCompass and Twitter @Clarity_Compass.