Are you pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?

John Nykolaiszyn, a.k.a @CigarSPHR, is yet another one of those righteous HR pros that I’m lucky enough to know through the social graces of Twitter. Since connecting in cyberspace, we’ve hung out at a couple of conferences, shared the stage at Recruitfest2010!, and smoked a few cigars together along the way. He has a really cool job with the Florida International University. Get to know him. Follow him. Check out his blog. And read his guest post here…


One of the key Trench HR skills that’s overlooked more and more in this age of social media and instant gratification is the subtle art of listening.

When it comes down to it – whether we’re recruiting, conducting an investigation, trying to respond to an employee’s unique needs, or striving to keep up with the business – isn’t our job almost entirely about listening? Maybe more so than any other out there. I wonder…and I worry…whether we HR folks in the trenches know what it means to truly listen?

I recently had the opportunity to spend a good amount of time in a culture building workshop. It was led by some of the best and brightest HR folks in our office and the firm that had developed the training (Senn Delaney) had actually created specific “Levels of Listening” and asked some pretty pointed questions about how we as participants listen to our bosses, peers, and family.

For instance, the act of non-listening is easily described as multitasking or letting your mind be elsewhere.  The next level of listening is “listening to tell my story”. Say you’re describing your weekend to me and I absolutely have to cut you off and go into a 15 minute diatribe of this awesome cigar that I smoked and how the tobacco was grown in the mountains of Nicaragua and blah blah blah.  I’ve verbally cut you off and tuned you out so I could tell you my no-so-awesome story. I’ve lost all sense of caring about what you’re talking about and only want to get my story out.  Once this example was pointed out at the training, I was horrified when I thought about how many times I had done that inadvertently to my peers.

The next stages involve “listening to judge or evaluate” and listening to “how it applies to me”.  These are pretty self explanatory and we’ve probably participated in these behaviors in the past. Who hasn’t just jumped in with “This is how you solve that problem…” or “Ummm does this apply to our project? Then I don’t got time to pay attention to you right now. Go see Sally two rows over.”

Finally, according to Senn Delaney, the highest level of listening is simply “listening to understand.” In this stage, we’re fully participating in the process, paying attention to the speaker and doing your best to empathize with them. When – and only when – we do so, we’re finally in a position to respond to the situation. An sometimes the best response is just to keep on listening.

I still struggle with listening at times, especially with my six year old daughter. But she’s the perfect person to keep me in that enviable stage of “understanding.” I often catch myself running through several of the stages before I have to shake my head, mentally slap myself, and ask her to tell me the story again…while I actually listen.

So next time you get the knock on the edge of your cube or office door from a colleague who wants to talk, put down the smartphone, minimize the Twitter feed, and pause…because employees don’t go to Accounting, they don’t go to Marketing, and they don’t even go to their peers when they want – when they need – someone to listen. They come to HR.

Listen to understand; you may actually hear something.

Image Credit: B Rosen

5 Responses to Are you pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?
  1. Jay Kuhns
    February 3, 2011 | 6:02 am

    Well done John. I’m so often in overdrive trying to solve others problems…this is a great reminder to slow things down and simply listen. Then when the other person has actually had a chance to tell their story (which is often helpful regardless of any solution), I can take a small step forward and begin strategizing options. Good message for us all.
    Jay Kuhns´s last blog ..Power Post – Be The OneMy ComLuv Profile

  2. Charlie
    February 3, 2011 | 8:30 am

    Thanks again for the guest post, John. just this morning at breakfast my oldest daughter was trying to tell me a story about her harrowing journey through the snow yesterday (read “drama”) and I was in full non-listening mode – even reading the paper while she spoke. She called me out on it, though, and I thought of this post, put the paper down, and fully engaged. Thanks to you, I’m not only a better HR pro, but also a better father. Imagine that.

  3. Guest Blogging in the HR Fishbowl!
    February 3, 2011 | 8:59 am

    [...] So have fun in the Fishbowl [...]

  4. John
    February 3, 2011 | 9:07 am

    Charlie, thanks for the shot!

    One of the mothers at school this morning asked me about our newborn and I got about two words in before another mother just jumped in and spouted off.

  5. Karin
    February 3, 2011 | 5:58 pm

    I find that sometimes simply listening until there is a long silence from the speaker is the best option. Even if your busy. Because many people just need to articulate the problem and an empathetic but non-intervention oriented session allows them to solve their own problem. Then they thank you and head happily off. Works more often than you think.

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Are you pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?