Zip the Lips: How Not Talking Can Help You Communicate More Effectively

HR & Safety

Listening skills, sensitivity play a key role in handling tricky personnel problems

As a manager at a small Connecticut company, Barbara has a knack for making sensible human resources decisions. When Kaitlin, one of her employees, lost her husband, Barbara allowed her some flexibility in her work schedule, understanding the new challenges she faced in balancing work and the care of her small children.

Lately, however, Kaitlin’s performance has begun to suffer, and coworkers are upset about the special treatment they think she’s receiving. Barbara knows she has to meet with Kaitlin and help get her back on track, but she’s nervous about how to handle such a delicate problem.

We’ve All Been There

Managers, supervisors, and HR professionals know how difficult communicating can be when they’re faced with tricky personnel problems like Barbara’s. Handling those situations effectively was the focus of the first meeting of the 2010-2011 CBIA HR Council.

“This is something we do every day,” said Jan Stolzenberg, senior HR generalist at The Lee Company in Westbrook. “No matter what part of HR we’re in, we’re all handling difficult situations.”

Speaker Susan Lesser, cofounder of nPlusOne Consulting, said two-way communication is the key to addressing tough issues that can make conversations awkward, uncomfortable, and often ineffective. Silence, she says, actually plays a critical role.

Silence Is Golden

“Most of us [HR pros] are so excited and passionate and time-crunched that we need to make our point first,” she said. “That’s not going to help you. Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking.”

In fact, letting an employee speak first can help that person clear his or her mind for receiving your side of the story. Once you’ve both had your say, you’ll be one step closer to a mutual understanding.

“It’s about listening, then talking,” says Lesser. “Not listening and talking.”

That’s why zipping your lips was the first (and last) item on Lesser’s list of ten steps for good listening. Others included eliminating distractions (such as cell phones and email alerts), being patient, and holding your temper.

Some Simple Steps

Lesser also offered tips on overcoming natural barriers to communication, such as cultural or background bias and the work environment. Steps as easy as choosing your words carefully, becoming aware of common linguistic differences, changing the physical setup of a meeting space, or preparing your thoughts in advance of a conversation can eliminate common obstacles to productive communication.

Suggestions like these gave attendees a host of new tools they could use right away. Stolzenberg, for one, left with new insight into handling the difficult workers’ compensation conversations she often finds herself in.

“Listening is the key,” she said. “It’s something we all have to sit back and remember to do. Let the other person talk, and really listen to what he or she is trying to tell you.”

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