Episode 4: The Art of Listening (transcript)
Here’s a question: how smart are you?…
For years, employees were evaluated on the basis of their IQs. I mean, you didn’t always have to take an official IQ test at the job interview, but you were assessed on a whole bunch of markers of IQ. Things like being able to solve problems and figure out patterns, digest complex ideas easily, and use logic to make important decisions. And those markers are still part of the hiring equation today.
But sometime in the late 90s, IQ was joined by EQ..at the hiring table. EQ is a comparatively less precise measurement of your ability to recognize and manage emotions in yourself and others. And it is closely associated with emotional intelligence, which is basically EQ in practice. You take that emotional info, from yourself and others, and use it to guide your behavior and how you might treat colleagues and clients.
With the rise of the “employee experience,” emotional intelligence has become a major recruiting factor. More and more, employees want to feel heard, so companies want to know that you can hear them. So here’s another question: how good of a listener are you? It might be smart to figure that out.
This is For The Love Of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience, made possible by Rogers. I’m Dr. Sonia Kang and I study the psychology of people at work, how they succeed, and how they grow.
In this episode, how do you become a more emotionally intelligent team leader?
If it wasn’t already, emotional intelligence became a critical leadership quality during the pandemic. The rise of remote work, and the massive pressures it placed on employees, and the complicated dance of hybrid work have created a potential communication crisis that has to be carefully navigated…We’ve had to meet people where they are, reassess how to share things, and, most importantly, how we hear each other.
In other words: great listening is a gateway to great leadership. But I think it’s fair to say that people, in general, are better at talking than listening. So let’s do this…We are gonna learn more about why emotional intelligence is such a powerful skill, how to be a better listener, and how to pick up on the emotional climate of your team…And we’ll learn some tricks from a “customer experience” pro on how to treat your employees like customers.
VOICEMAIL – MAJOR PHONE FILTER, CANNOT BE SUBTLE
Hey, Sonia! You know, I’ve been managing a team for about a year now. About a dozen people. And I should say it’s my first time as a manager. Anyway, things were going pretty well — or so I thought. I was paying close attention to my team’s needs. And then out-of-the-blue, one of them got really upset about some team dynamic stuff that’s apparently been going on behind the scenes for months. But I just thought: how was I supposed to know — if my team never told me!
So problems sometimes pop up like this. People express themselves in wildly different ways. Some are indirect, others are direct. Some people talk themselves up a lot, while others are more modest. And if you don’t notice those differences, you’re going to miss the larger truth they’re trying to tell you.
So, that’s why I was so excited to talk about all of this with Helena Seo…She’s head of design at DoorDash and she’s spent the last decade focusing on people management and team building in tech companies. Helena moved to the US from South Korea in 1999 and bridging those two cultures has given her some fascinating insights into the ways different people communicate–and how we can adjust our listening to hear them.
Helena Seo: I spent my childhood in ’70s and ’80s in South Korea when the culture was still very much conservative and authoritarian. [00:02:00]..[00:03:00] You’re not really supposed to express yourself [00:03:30]
But then she moved to America, to study.
Seo: It was such a culture shock to me to see everyone being so expressive of themselves in the classroom and great self-promotion..[00:05:30]..And my instructors used to give me the B rating because I was not really speaking up.
Helena might not have been a big talker, but what her teachers didn’t give her credit for were her listening skills, specifically her uniquely Korean listening skills.
Sonia Kang: I think one of the things that really sticks out to me is your experience as being a participator versus being a listener, … So [00:07:00] what does listening mean in Korean culture? Why is that so important?
Helena Seo: Yeah. So I will have to talk about a very specific term that we use in Korea, which is a nunchi…. In English, the closest word to translate this word nunchi would be tact. [00:07:30] So in a culture where you’re supposed to read between the lines more than speaking up, this..was a skill that you needed to pick up for your own survival…because it means you are tactful and sensitive to the surroundings and you have acted sensibly. So it’s all about reading between the lines and sensing out others’ mood and emotions.
Sonia Kang: Cool. Can you give me an example of nunchi? Someone who knows nunchi how would they act differently than someone who doesn’t?
Helena Seo: Yeah. I mean, when [00:08:30] you enter a meeting room, then look at everyone. I mean, no one is really speaking, but you can sense out, “Oh, this person may not be really feeling comfortable being in this room or discussing this topic.” This is a skill that I use all the time in managing people.
To read between the lines. To hear what isn’t spoken. That’s the super-power Helena is talking about. And it’s something that she saw less of when she moved to America. But despite the emphasis on talking, there’s still a lot that doesn’t get expressed because a lot of people can’t operate in that Type A extrovert mode. To really get to all of those different realities, you’re often listening for what’s not being said. That’s what we’re really exploring in this episode: your ability to hear between the lines.
Sonia Kang: [00:11:00] How have you used nunchi at work?
Helena Seo: So at the individual level, my fundamental belief is that everyone is different..and I cannot really assume anything about anyone, period. .. [00:11:30]
Not assuming anything about anyone. From that position of openness and curiosity, Helena adapts her listening style to the particular communication style that she’s encountering.
Helena Seo: [00:13:30] First, I try to understand who they are genuinely. What are their motivations, pain points, superpowers and development areas, both professionally and personally. And second, I need to learn the best way to work with them operating instruction basically. Do they want me to give more frequent feedback on the spot in real-time? Or do they need more room to figure things [00:14:00] out on their own? Or should I adjust my communication style to be more direct and straightforward versus a little softer or nuanced?
Getting a good sense of each individual is only the first step, though. In order to hear what everyone has to say, Helena spends a lot of time designing things at the group level to make sure the big talkers don’t dominate, and everyone feels comfortable participating.
Helena Seo: So first I think about the dynamics of the room in advance and pick the agenda intentionally. So I would ask questions like, “Hey, who will be the dominant speaker in this room, who may not be comfortable with this topic and who may feel bored or left [00:15:00] out on this topic?” Some people may think that this is overly calculated, but I believe that this is the least you can do as an empathetic leader.
Once Helena knows who she’s speaking with, and has designed meetings that give everyone space to share their thoughts, she then makes sure that everyone is ready to speak up when it’s their chance. She sends out meeting agendas in advance so everybody can plan to participate, intentionally.
Helena Seo: This may sound really basic, but it’s very, very important to encourage more participation [00:15:30] and inclusion from the group.
No one’s blurting things out on the spot just to hear their own voice, and no one’s staying silent because they can’t think of anything smart to say…Proactive steps like this–designing interactions that give everybody a chance to share, no matter what their communication style might be — are especially helpful in a world where hybrid work and remote work are more common. People can feel disconnected and isolated when they’re just another little rectangle on a screen.
Helena Seo: It’s actually even more important than ever because you have to literally read between the lines when the person is not in front of you, right? There could be a lot of awkward [00:39:00] silence. There is lack of expression, and that’s where your nunchi can become true superpower.
Even when everybody’s on a Zoom call, though, there are ways to design meetings for better listening. For example, when Helena runs a virtual meeting, she has everyone contribute to the comment section before any conversation starts–that way, quieter team members have another way to participate.
To varying degrees everybody is leaving something out. That’s just being human.
We hedge our bets, we avoid offending people, maybe we’re afraid to try out a new idea, or admit that we don’t know something. A good listener–a good leader like Helena– actively seeks out those unspoken messages. She gauges employees’ emotional profiles and calibrates her ears, meetings, and office culture, to pick up signals that would otherwise slip under the radar.
Another helpful thing I learned, funnily enough in a parenting workshop, is that there is an emotion or feeling behind every action, reaction or behavior. Focusing on that emotion and addressing it will often lead to different behaviors. It rarely works the other way around. So this requires a lot of care and empathy. Something our next guest has a lot of experience with.
Nate Brown: [04:30] …. It’s fascinating how well we respond to people that care about us.
This is the “customer experience” pro I mentioned…Nate Brown, the Chief Experience Officer at Officium Labs, spends his days helping brands improve customer experience, and he leans heavily on something called active listening to do it.
Nate Brown: when I think about active listening, I just think about somebody that sincerely cares about what’s going on. They’re trying to reach in to my mind and understand the context of what’s going on for me, they want to know what my definition of success is, instead of biasing the conversation [00:18:30] and assuming that what I mean is this, or what I want is that, they’re going to take the time to really listen and understand … what my unique needs are. [00:26:00]
From Nate’s perspective, customers turn against service reps, who are reading from a script versus listening to their needs. So what does active listening look like in practice?
Nate Brown: I mean, there’s the idea of reflecting. I’m going to repeat back to you what you said, maybe in my own words, maybe in your words, just to confirm and make sure, “Is this [00:26:30] what you’re saying, have I captured this correctly?” That shows I’m invested in this conversation, I’m going to understand..And until we agree that I’ve got it, I’m not going to make any assumptions
But sometimes the customer doesn’t even know what to say.
Nate Brown: [00:27:30] So you’re digging deeper, you’re reaching beyond the surface level of what the customer has articulated to get more context so that you can do things like next issue avoidance.
Now, the danger here is that the customer support rep has been through your problem a million times. But for the customer, things are confusing. They’re trying to articulate something for the first time, with no script at all.
So, in an ideal scenario, you’re doing two things: First, you’re reflecting the person’s problem back to them. And second, you’re doing a little creative work, using your wealth of experience and some intuition to bridge the gap between what they’re saying out loud and what they’re trying to tell you. Now, here’s the really interesting part: those lessons from the call-centre, turn out to be super useful in every office.
Nate Brown: [29:00] I mean, we’re dealing with people on both sides of this equation. So whether it is that we’re interfacing with a customer who’s looking to achieve a specific need, or an employee who at the same time, when they’re coming to you as a manager, there’s some vulnerability there.
Nate uses the same active listening with his team members as he does with his customers.
But as a leader, you have to have that third ear on too, and be thinking. Are they just not quite saying it, are they holding something back? Is there some way that I can be helping this individual to really unlock their full potential as they strive to do a great job at their work today? [00:30:00] How can I free them up to serve better?”
Third ear listening is the North American rough equivalent of Helena’s Korean nunchi. Combining it with active listening can lead to an advanced level of emotional intelligence: anticipation.
Nate: Another brilliant thing from the effortless experience [00:19:00] that we can do as a really highly skilled agent to think about, “Wow, this person expressed this need, but I know they’re about to run into this problem in two days, I’m going to go ahead and set them up for success for that hurdle and help them overcome that barrier right now so that I can save them time and effort into the future.” I mean, that’s building a partnership right there.
Earlier in his career, when Nate first made the jump from working the phones to leading a team, he had a bit of an epiphany about his own emotional intelligence as a new manager.
Nate Brown: At some point, as I took ownership of that team and became [00:07:30] a leader, there was a .. small period where I allowed myself to become a … bit negative towards that customer set in terms of some of their technical incompetence and just started to kind of laugh and almost … make fun of this one customer demographic. …
But a colleague stepped in and asked him to stop.
[00:14:00] Because if it’s okay for us to talk about our customer that way, then it’s okay for us to talk about our coworkers that way.
Disrespect towards customers can end up silencing your coworkers, because they don’t want those negative feelings spilling over onto them. It creates a culture where it seems like only people who express themselves perfectly and know exactly what they’re doing are worth listening to. Basically, not-listening is contagious..And not good for the work culture.
When you have a leader capable of creating a circle of [00:05:00] safety, a circle of trust around their people that are inside of their flock, that flock is no longer consumed with the fear of one another consuming each other, getting a knife in the back from a coworker. They’re not consumed by fear of external factors because they’re there together protecting one another.
Here’s the good news: Once we commit ourselves to developing emotional intelligence, and really practicing our active listening, we become in tune with those around us–customers and coworkers. Ultimately, Nate wants to create an inclusive culture of trust. And that includes everybody the company interacts with. Inside and out.
But you don’t have to be a senior leader like Nate to contribute to that circle of trust. No matter what your job title might be, you can lead your team toward that culture of listening and emotional intelligence. People often want their work culture to change but they wait for someone else to come along and change it–I’ve seen it so many times–but the person to start that change can be you.
Nora Jenkins Townson: The way to build that is to model it. [00:18:00]
Nora Jenkins Townson is the founder of Bright And Early, where she provides HR consulting, for startups and high-growth companies. Building cultures of listening and EI are a big part of Nora’s work. And it’s something she has to work on at her own company.
I think [00:36:00] we have to be more conscious of EQ and empathy, when we are hybrid and when we are remote. It’s just human that it’s easier to build bonds with people that we see in person and know in person and that a lot of contexts gets lost on Slack or other written communication forms. [00:36:30] That happens to me all the time. I had a one-on-one today, with one of my team members and they were concerned about an interaction that we had in Slack. And truly, it was just a misunderstanding based on tone. That if we had been talking in person or even on video, it would have been a lot clearer. I think a lot of misunderstandings like that happen.
Here’s a simple, ready-to-go exercise Nora uses at her own workplace. A way to get everybody thinking in terms of reading emotions, building that emotional intelligence:
Nora Jenkins Townson: We have something that we call out of tens. [00:21:00] At our weekly team meeting, we rate ourselves out of 10, in two areas. I know that sounds scary, but it’s not. It’s not a performance thing. One is capacity and how busy we are. So a 10 means, “I am absolutely drowning. I cannot put one thing more on my plate. Please help.” A zero is like, basically you’re dead. Then the other one..how you’re doing personally. If you’re a 10, you are rested, [00:21:30] ready, healthy, feeling amazing..And anything below a five or a six is like, you’re probably having some real issues…You actually don’t have to explain why you’re rating yourself on the personal scale, a five or a 10. You don’t need to tell us why…[00:22:00]..But it gives us the information on kind of where you’re coming from that week and the context. If you are at a 10 capacity and you’re feeling a five, it doesn’t matter why we’re just going to say, “Oh, okay. Let’s re-resource that to somebody that is maybe a seven out of 10 in capacity and a nine out of 10 on how they’re feeling.”
I love that. It’s a simple, non-judgemental way to get some top-level readings. And it makes a big difference when leaders do the same thing.
Nora Jenkins Townson: I think that’s really important, just being super vulnerable about your shortcomings and what you’re working on and when you mess up.
Being open and vulnerable takes courage..But it sets a tone..Soon..your team will think of, sharing their problems–their real problems–as a normal thing, a good thing.
Nora Jenkins Townson: you can really build a lot of trust and then save a lot of time because instead of people sitting thinking about their drama and like, “Oh, should or should I not approach them with this?” [00:20:00] They’re just going to walk over to you and say like, “Hey, can you clarify this thing for me?” Then that’s it. It’s over. It’s back to work.
What Nora’s describing is a workplace where people feel psychologically safe. That safety makes things efficient and straightforward. But you aren’t likely to get there by accident.
I think really defining [00:08:30] that culture or even having a manager guide book like, “Hey, we expect you to meet with people once a month or once a week for a one-on-one. Here’s what you do in a one-on-one. Here’s what to do when somebody comes to you with a tough personal problem. Here are the certain things you should float up to HR or above you, if need be. Here’s what to do when they come to you and they want to talk about salary. When there’s conflict on the team.” We need to train people about these things. It’s not always everybody’s instinct. For some people, it’s easier than others. I actually think EQ [00:09:00] is a huge factor in that.
In fact, an atmosphere of safety, which feels quite natural and organic, is actually intentionally created by leaders who value emotional intelligence…Another one of Nora’s practices..is regular one-on-ones to gauge where people are at.
In a good one-on-one, it’s really focused more [00:14:00] on the employee. It’s the employee’s time to really surface anything existential, anything that’s bothering them. A lot of people fall into it being a status update…but generally we want to focus on, “Okay, what are the things you’re really enjoying about your work right now? [00:14:30] What things are really challenging about your work right now? Are you stuck anywhere? How can I help you?” One of the biggest things that I’ve learned about doing good one-on-ones that’s very uncomfortable is letting there be silence.
Nora also says it helps to be prepared.
There’s nothing wrong [00:53:00] with having a script for a tough conversation. If you find yourself in an unexpected, tough conversation like when you’re a manager and maybe somebody comes to you in a one-on-one and you were expecting just an update, but they show
up in tears. It’s something you can fall back on. Have a few scripts.
And ask a lot of questions.
Have them explain it [00:32:00] again until you get it right. Ask them what they want and how you can help, reflect that back. It may seem tedious, but if it’s something that you’re new to, for whatever reason, maybe it just doesn’t come naturally. Maybe you’re neurodivergent, maybe you’re just a new manager and you’re figuring it out, just over index for that listening.
Also over-index for how you might be feeling at the time.
When you’re above the line, you’re operating at your highest self. You’re thinking of, “How can I be my best self? How can I really show up and listen,” et cetera. When you’re operating from [00:51:00] below the line, you’re not quite there. Maybe you’re in a place of fear. Maybe you feel insecure in your position. Maybe you’re just having a bad day right…Maybe it’s just not a good day for this conversation.” Just go in as much as you can, feeling above the line.
And once you’re in the conversation, creating a safe space to talk doesn’t mean prying. And it also doesn’t mean that you, as a leader, need to take on huge amounts of emotional labour.
Nora Jenkins Townson: I never push anyone to tell me specifically, what is wrong.
Nora: [00:24:30} you do have to have that boundary while being empathetic as well. You’re not going to sit there, giving somebody advice and feedback on their love life or [00:26:00] “Oh, I can’t believe your husband said that,” or something like that. But we want to bring it back to, “You’re having a hard time right now. [00:25:00] How can I help you work wise? What do you need?”
The balance of this kind of emotional support can be tricky.
The person who is highly, highly empathetic and not able to focus on the results side, their team is going to absolutely love them but they’re going to get fired because their team’s not going to get a lot of work done. A lot of being [00:11:00] a leader, it’s not just motivating and making friends with people on your team but it’s making sure that your team is meeting its goals and working with other leaders across the organization. It’s really complex.
A listening culture at work is not a conversational free-for-all…It’s a safe space where everybody’s current emotional state is accepted.
It’s a fine line to walk. But being brave and careful when it comes to emotions and to listening uncovers really rich territory. Think of all the different experiences your coworkers are living with–some good, some uncomfortable–and how diverse that makes their perspectives. That diversity is what fuels new insights and ideas.
So we’ve been listening to listening experts in this episode. And here’s what I heard: There’s no single strategy when it comes to listening. We adapt listening styles as we learn more about the people we’re working with. And we target the unspoken–to hear the things that others might miss. That’s the Korean nunchi or, third-ear listening…And we can use active listening to let people know we are there with them every step of the way.
Whatever listening technique you use, and you might use different ones at different times it’s all about finding ways to draw out that emotional communication, spoken or unspoken. It lets us relate better to each other, improves the way we’re perceived, and clears away baggage so we can get down to work.
But the biggest reason to level-up your listening game is also the simplest: it’s the only way that every brilliant voice is going to be heard.
TRANSITION TO THE EXTRO
Thanks for listening to another episode of For The Love Of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Make sure you get all our new episodes as soon as they drop–you can subscribe now, wherever you get your podcasts or check us out at ForTheLoveOfWork.ca. I’m Sonia Kang. Talk soon.