Organization & Leadership Consulting

How to Respond to the “You’re not listening to me!” Complaint

“You’re not listening to me!”

No doubt we have all heard that cry before. Usually its accompanied with a stomped foot, a reddened face, and an elevated tone of voice. And just as certainly we have responded with some version of “I am too listening to you.” And this litany of woe goes round and round without resolution.

As a caring manager you really do believe that you are listening. What is so exasperating is that the more you repeat that line, the less your colleague believes you. Here a wise manager will ask themselves, “What have I missed?”

The body language of the stomped foot, reddened face, and elevated voice is a tell-tale sign that a great well of emotion is beneath this oft-heard plea. Responding with pure logic and, what you believe is cold fact, “I am listening,” will garner little connection to your colleague. Your goal must be to genuinely make a deep human connection to your work partner on both an intellectual and emotional level. Next time this drama occurs try something like this:

“Sally, I really do want to hear you. Let me try to see if I am receiving your message completely. What I hear you saying is . . . .” At this point, you have hopefully been deeply listening to your work partner and can articulate, without sarcasm or cynicism, what they are trying to say to you. Repeat their message back to them succinctly.

“Did I get that about right? If not, please correct where I am missing your message.” This is where you must genuinely communicate with your body language that you honestly want to understand your colleague. You cannot fake this. Your body will tell on you if you are being disingenuous. Talk back and forth here until the other person can agree that you have fully understood and can repeat back to them their own position.

Now that you have connected on the logic side, you must try to connect on an emotional level too. “OK Sally, now that I have fully grasped your position, let me see if I understand why this is so important. If I understand properly you are exasperated/angry/embarrassed (fill in the emotion you perceive is being communicated to you through the person’s body language and tone of voice). “Am I substantially in the ballpark with what you are feeling?” Here again, your goal is to connect and understand on the emotional level. Allow the other person to articulate their feelings in their words.

“Thank you Sally, for taking the time to let me take all this in. It is important to me that we have an excellent working relationship of trust and communication.” At this point you need to make a split second decision. If the message being sent to you is powerful and requires contemplation, say “Sally, what you have told me really demands a thoughtful response. Can you give me a little time to ponder this and get back to you (name a specific time)? Would that be alright with you?”

And if you judge that you can adequately respond in the moment, say “Sally, I think I understand your position now. Would you allow me a few moments to lay out my thinking and feelings on this issue? In so doing, I hope we can both see the playing field fully.”

An exchange such as the above is no magic solution to all that is running through Sally and it may not instantly get you on the same page. More conversation and negotiation will be required to get you there. However, the big win here is that you will have made a gigantic step towards maintaining a healthy relationship with Sally. She will trust you; which after all, is the true currency of business. You will have also established healthy communication habits in your organizational culture. And that is a far better outcome than simply replying “I am too listening” and storming off.


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