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Listening: An Essential Skill for New Managers

Ken Blanchard Posted by Ken Blanchard.

Ken is the coauthor (along with Jane Ripley and Eunice Parisi-Carew) of Collaboration Begins With You. He is also chief spiritual officer (CSO) of The Ken Blanchard Companies, an international management training and consulting firm that he and his wife, Dr. Marjorie Blanchard, founded in 1979 in San Diego, California. 


Listening: An Essential Skill for New Managers

Looking over the comments from my last post, I am reminded that the key to being an effective manager is building good relationships. And the key to good relationships is communication. Management takes place mostly through conversations. Several of you mentioned the challenge of having conversations with direct reports who were once your peers.

In our new First-time Manager training program, we address many common challenges people face when they step into a leadership role. One of our main focus areas is basic communication skills that can help improve conversations and make managing people a little less daunting. When I think about something that gets in the way of effective conversations, I think about the importance of listening.

Listening? How hard can that be? Actually, listening can be difficult for new managers who feel as if they have something to prove or they are supposed to have all the answers. I encourage new managers to listen with the intent of understanding and being influenced by the other person.

A one-on-one conversation with a direct report is a great time to practice the skill of mindfulness. First, get rid of distractions—close the door and put away cell phones. Then, focus on understanding what the other person is saying. Ask questions to gain insight about the situation, and try to avoid judgment. Be present with them as they are speaking—and resist the urge to formulate your next comment before they finish. My son, Scott, says, “Listen more than you talk. Listen more than is comfortable. Listen more than you already do.”

It’s also important to listen for what is not being said. Ask open-ended questions to draw the person out and get them to clarify certain points. This is best handled by asking how and what questions instead of why questions. It is a natural tendency to ask why questions, but they can make a person feel criticized or challenged. Asking a how or what question helps build trust and improve the dialogue. For example, if you saw your direct report struggling with a project, instead of asking, “Why did you do it that way?” you might ask, “What would you do differently if you had that project to do again?” or, “How would you handle that project now with what you have learned?” Notice how one word can change the entire tone and intention of the conversation!

I saw a great quote the other day from author Sue Patton Thoele, Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” I think this really captures how important listening can be both on a personal and professional level. Just imagine how rewarding it would be for a new manager and a direct report to feel like their spirits have expanded. I think it would go a long way toward developing trusting, authentic relationships that lead to highly engaged employees and stimulating work environments.

I’m interested to hear more about challenges you’ve seen new managers face. Please share them in the comments section below so I can address them in my next post. Together, we can help new managers get off to a great start in their new role!