How to Listen When You Don't Have Time

One of the challenges you will likely face as a new leader is learning to handle the increased inbound communication efforts coming your way – everything from more emails, text messages, instant messages, and meetings to more people dropping in to talk or stopping you as you walk down the hall. Moving from individual contributor to leader significantly increases the number of inbound messages you receive. 

Also, you have likely heard that you need to make time to listen to your team members – to create open and honest two-way communication. You might have attended a workshop, read blog posts, or listened to podcast episodes telling you that feeling heard and understood is a key driver of employee engagement and that it is your responsibility to make sure your team members feel heard and understood.

Increasing inbound messages, more communications to manage, more people to engage with, and a heightened need to listen to your team – this combination creates a perfect storm for frustration and overwhelm. Frankly, it can feel like a no-win situation. 

This no-win scenario raises the question I’ve heard in one form or another from many of our Bud to Boss workshop participants: “Do I have to listen when I don’t have time?”

The short (and slightly harsh) answer is yes, you have to listen.

The qualifier is that you might not have to listen immediately.

When someone approaches you as you’re moving from one meeting to another, steps in your office to talk, or calls while you’re working on another project, you do not face a choice between listening or not listening. Your real choice is whether you listen now or later. The issue comes down to a matter of clear communication and expectation management rather than a choice between listening or not listening.

In these moments of choice, the main message you want to communicate to the other person is that you are willing to listen to them when you have the time to focus on what they are saying. To make that choice wisely, first figure out if the issue is an emergency that must be addressed immediately or if it’s an issue that can wait until you have the time to give them the attention they deserve. 

The specifics of how you make this determination calls for both relational and situational awareness, and there is no single, one-size-fits-all approach for how you do it. Here is one example of how you could handle a situation where someone approaches you to tell you about a frustration they have while you are walking between meetings:

“John, this sounds like a pretty important issue that I’d like to give full attention to. Right now, I’m headed into a meeting. Can we talk about this later today when I can focus on the issue better?”

Sometimes, they will tell you that it truly is an emergency that must be dealt with immediately. In most cases, they will either agree to talk with you later or they will say something like “Don’t worry about it. It’s not really that big of a deal.”  Either way, you have achieved both your communication and expectation management goals.



Do you have questions about how to be a better listener as a leader? Drop a line below or send us an email:

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