When you work with executives and managers, a common complaint you hear about HR professionals is “They don’t listen. They just tell.” So when you work with HR professionals, you encourage them to adopt three practices of active listening:
- The period-to-question-mark ratio.
- The EAAR listening method.
- Confront, then question.
The Period-to-Question-Mark Ratio
When you’re engaged in a conversation, what’s the ratio of your sentences that end with periods to those that end with question marks? If you’re like most people, the ratio is overwhelmingly tilted toward sentences that end with periods. This could show that you are telling people what to do more often than you are looking for consensus on how to solve a problem. When you engage in a discussion with an executive, manager or employee, keep the ratio in mind. Strive to correct the imbalance by making yourself ask questions. The fact that you ask matters more than what the question is.
People I’ve coached have found that keeping the ratio in mind acts as a self-regulating device to ask more questions.
The EAAR Listening Method
E: Explore – A: Acknowledge – A: Apply – R: Response
It’s a sequence. Begin the discussion with an exploratory, open-ended question: “Ms. Manager, what are the reasons that led you to conclude Mr. Employee should be fired?” “Tell me more.” “Please share some examples.” “Help me understand.”
Once you’ve explored the other person’s position and reasons for it, move to acknowledgement. Get the person to acknowledge that you understand his or her point. “So, Ms. Manager, if I understand you correctly, you believe Mr. Employee should be terminated because of the following reasons… Is that correct? Although critical, the acknowledge step is often overlooked. Instead of confirming the understanding, the listener makes an assumption, which often proves erroneous and leads to unnecessary conflict. The EAAR method eliminates this possibility. If the person says, “No, that’s not my position,” simply go back to the exploration step: “I’m sorry. Please explain what I missed.” In your response, apply portions of what the person said, even actual words the person used. Even if your response isn’t substantively what the person originally sought, this approach creates optimal conditions for acceptance.
“Ms. Manager, I agree with you that Mr. Employee’s behavior is unacceptable. What you described [list the employee’s actions] makes a compelling case. However, because of the following reasons, I think termination now would be premature and present undue legal risk.
“Nevertheless, I’m happy to work with you on an intervention strategy. If Mr. Employee is willing and able to close the gap in your legitimate management expectations, he will do so. If not, we will be in a much stronger position to terminate his employment, and I will support you.”
Many HR professionals have told me that when they’ve used the EAAR method, conversations they feared would turn ugly became positive. Instead of a clash of wills and arguments, the discussion became collaborative and solution-oriented.
Confront, Then Question
What if you are the bearer of bad news? You must deliver a message you know won’t make the recipient happy. The approach here is to confront, then question. Make a short opening statement. State your position succinctly and without elaboration. Next, switch to question mode. You can think of this approach as beginning the EAAR method with a short opening response to frame the conversation.
“Mr. Executive, based on our investigation, we found that Mr. Employee in your department engaged in actions that violate our anti-harassment policy. Although we understand he has been with the company for a long time and is one of your best performers, given the seriousness of the misconduct, we believe the appropriate action is termination of his employment.”
Next, go to question mode: “What do you think?” “What questions do you have?” “How do you see things at this point?”
Assuming the executive doesn’t respond by saying “Great idea! Go for it!” and wants to argue his or her point, pivot to exploration and start the EAAR process at that point. “I want to make sure I understand you, so please tell me what you agree with, what you disagree with and your reasons.”
After that comes your acknowledgement: “Let me make sure I understand you. You agree that Mr. Employee’s behavior was unacceptable and violated policy. However, you disagree that the proper remedy is termination. Instead, you recommend a suspension and written warning for these reasons. [List the reasons.] Is that accurate?”
Now you’re ready to apply. From what the executive said, extract what you can use in your response.
“I appreciate the fact that you support our investigation and finding of misconduct. Our only disagreement is the appropriate remedy. Your points about Mr. Employee’s long service and stellar performance are valid. Yet for these reasons [list them], I still believe termination is called for. How do you suggest we resolve our differing views? For example, should we present them to the CEO and let her decide?”
These types of conversations can go in all sorts of directions, including ones you don’t anticipate. That’s OK, so long as you don’t lose sight of the value of questions during a dispute. Avoid cross-examination questions, such as “Isn’t it true that … ?” Your questions should not state or imply your view. They should be curiosity-based, as you’re genuinely trying to find out what the other person thinks. The confront-then-question approach allows you to go directly to the heart of the matter. Even if you sense rising tension and hostility, the negative emotions will soon be arrested by your open-ended, exploratory questions. When HR professionals make a commitment to active listening, executives, managers and employees become their biggest fans instead of being their biggest critics.