Are you listening to me, boss?

“Are you listening to me?” It’s the question that I most fear from my wife. Usually, the answer isn’t in doubt. I wasn’t listening, and even worse, I’ve been caught.

A spouse can be honest and confront you when you’re not paying attention, but it can be difficult to have that kind of candor in the workplace, especially when you’re in a leadership position and your employees may be reticent to speak up.

With all of the uncertainty and turmoil facing our government, I’ve encouraged federal leaders to use town halls, team meetings and one-on-one conversations as a way of connecting with their teams, hearing their concerns and when possible, addressing issues that are causing problems.

There’s one caveat. You really have to listen.

This can be a struggle for some busy federal leaders, but not hearing what your employees are saying will likely backfire. Here’s some advice to help you overcome the dreaded “Are you listening to me?”

· Listen, repeat, ask a question…and then respond. Leaders sometimes formulate their response to a question or offer a comment while someone is still talking. Don’t do it! Your employees will know that you’re not really listening, and the conversation could become more of a debate rather than a dialogue. Instead, let your employees have their say, and respond with follow-up questions to draw out more information. Just be sure to avoid comically clichéd phrases like, “What I hear you saying is...” It’s also important that you try not to sound accusatory.

· Embrace the silence. As uncomfortable as it may be, allow some silence when talking with your team. Sure, you’ll hate the silence, but so will everyone else in the room. As a result, someone will feel compelled to fill the void and say something. I find that these spur of the moment statements are some of the most honest and actionable feedback you’ll ever receive as a federal manager.

· Be honest about what you can and cannot do. To demonstrate that you’re really listening, you must also be willing to take action. Your team wants more than just a shoulder to cry on. If you feel that some of the issues are beyond your control, let folks know that you’ll talk with your supervisor. If you never intend to address this issue, be honest about that too by saying, “Look, I know that you’re concerned, but I have to be honest…” Your team may not like the answer, but they’ll appreciate your candor.

· If you make a commitment, keep it. After the conclusion of the conversation, write yourself a note to follow up on any promises you have made. Then, be sure to close the loop with your team about your actions, next steps and results. You cannot assume that your team will take it all on faith.

These are some of the techniques that successful leaders have used to demonstrate that they’re listening and ones that I try to practice myself. Federal managers, how do you demonstrate that you’re listening to your employees? And federal employees, how do you know if your leaders are listening? Please share your stories and post your ideas below, or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

And check back on Wednesday, when I speak with the United Nations Foundation President, Timothy E. Wirth. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

More from the Federal Coach:

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USDA’s Tom Vilsack on growing into politics

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.
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