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How well do you listen?

Successful facility managers are good listeners. Learn these seven steps of active listening to improve your skills

by Doug Pearson Ph.D., LEED, CFM, CEM, CEA — In the movie Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character Mia asks Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta, “When in conversation, do you listen, or do you just wait to talk?” Vincent thinks about it and then responds, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

This scene illustrates one of the most overlooked, yet important, traits of a great facility manager: the ability to listen.

Importance of active listening for FM's

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Most facility managers will say, “Sure, I listen,” but do they really? Active listening skills, when given the appropriate attention to learning and practicing, can greatly improve a facility manager’s customer service and level of respect from staff, as well as help fully understand complex issues.

A great FM will always listen more than he or she talks. Most people want to be heard, and many people have their own ego that facility managers must deal with and manage. This is where active listening skills can help.

7 components of active listening

Active listening is a technique of careful listening and observation of nonverbal cues, with feedback in the form of accurate paraphrasing that is used in counseling, training, and solving disputes or conflicts. Facility managers must wear many hats — even the hat of counselor, trainer, and mediator. That is why active listening skills are particularly relevant.

Active listening includes seven components: neutrality, patience, feedback, questioning, reflection, clarification, and summarization.

Neutrality refers to being nonjudgmental. Facility managers must keep an open mind and focus on the words and gestures of the person talking. The person is communicating with the facility manager because they think the issue is important, regardless of the FM’s predetermined opinions on the matter. This person is most likely not interested in the FM’s opinions on the issue. The facility manager’s function is to fully understand the speaker’s perspective and importance to their job and the organization as a whole.

Patience can be challenging considering that most facility managers are trying to fit 20 hours of work into a 10-hour day. A FM must be calm and give the speaker full attention while letting them finish what they have to say. A FM should not cut off the speaker or interrupt. The facility manager should let the person fully express the issue because it is therapeutic for them. Being patient is a completely unselfish act and speaker can sense the FM’s level of engagement and commitment to solving their issue. The facility manager needs to shut down the internal dialogue and avoid daydreaming or thinking about the next meeting.

Feedback is tricky. Although critical to the active listening process, too much can seem insincere or rushed. Facility managers should try to avoid saying “I understand.” This implies a full understanding of the speakers’ experiences, knowledge, and attitudes. The FM can’t possibly fully understand the speaker’s full personality or background. It is better to say, “I hear you.”

The feedback should be specific to the speaker’s issue. Avoid frequently used phrases like “very good,” “yes,” or “indeed.” The listener should not cut the speaker off, but when they are done speaking ask specific questions to the issue so the listener can gain a deep understanding of what the speaker’s needs are.

Questions can help the FM remember what the specifics are. The human mind is notoriously bad at remembering details. This is compounded with time. Asking specific questions will help the FM remember what the goal of the conversation is. By asking relevant questions the listener also helps to reinforce that they have an interest in what the speaker is saying.

Reflection, or the reflective technique, involves reflecting back to the speaker what the believed meaning is. Reflection is related to clarification of meaning. Reflection increases the FM’s own understanding and helps the speaker clarify his or her thoughts based on the facility manager’s reflection. It can reassure the speaker that the FM is interested in their point of view.

By using reflection, the speaker can see that the FM is paying attention to them and making a conscious effort to understand what they mean. The facility manager can slightly alter posture to show interest. Slightly moving forward, leaning in, or nodding one’s head shows interest and concern. The listener should use the appropriate facial expression and make eye contact to signal interest and engagement. This tends to encourage people to open up and make their case in an honest and heartfelt way.

If the FM feels there is more to explore, paraphrasing of the last few words spoken or an open question to keep the conversation alive is a good technique. In some instances, the FM may just want to remain quiet in order to give the speaker time to gather their thoughts. These simple techniques can help bring to light issues that the manager was previously unaware of. Don’t be afraid of the silent pause. Don’t try to fill the silence. Be patient.

Clarification, like reflection, will help the listener fully understand the issue and make the speaker feel that the facility manager is engaged and sincere. Clarification questions need to be specific to the issue. Try to avoid generalizations as the speaker will see this as lack of appropriate attention to the issue at hand. A mixture of direct questions for clarification and reflection can get to the core of the issue and create a positive relationship with the speaker. Clarification can help fill in the gaps and correct misconceptions.

Summarizing involves taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them in a logical and clear way, giving the speaker chance to correct if necessary. Summarizing statements serve to tie together multiple ideas expressed by the speaker to help focus the speaker’s thoughts. The FM’s summary should also include a cordial end to the conversation such as “Thank you for taking time to make me aware of your concern.” Try to give a firm timeframe for follow up, such as “I will look into this issue and get back to you by the end of business tomorrow.”

Nonverbal communication

Throughout the conversation, the active learning process includes close attention to nonverbal communication. The facility manager needs to be conscious of what the speaker is communicating nonverbally. Likewise, the FM needs to control their own nonverbal communication to control the message.

Bad nonverbal communication includes arm crossing, eye rolling, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, or swaying. It is particularly rude to continuously look at one’s phone or watch. Other bad nonverbal communication signals include standing with arms crossed, the fig leaf position with the hands protecting the crotch, creating a church steeple with one’s fingers, and washing one’s hands while speaking. With every one of these practices, the speaker is creating a physical barrier between her or him and listeners. To avoid them, simply start with arms at the sides, and bring them up to make a gesture. Avoid clumsy use of objects like fiddling with a tape measure or tapping a pencil or pen on the desk.

Good nonverbal communication includes eye contact; a calm, firm and steady posture; hands by the side; nodding in agreement with the speaker; and the occasional, yet appropriate, smile. Gestures should be essential to the conversation. As Hamlet put it, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” By keeping that thought in mind, the facility manager should find it difficult to use too many gestures, since any one gesture couldn’t possibly fit that many expressions. The other half of this equation is the power and spareness of the gesture. Each gesture should be strong, clearly support the phrase or idea, and end cleanly. The fewer the nonverbal gestures or cues, the better.

Effective facility managers are great listeners. Active listening skills can help the facility manager improve overall effectiveness and be the groundwork for positive work relationships with customers, peers, and subordinates. A great facility manager always listens more than he or she talks.

Doug Pearson Ph.D., LEED, CFM, CEM, CEA, is the associate vice president of facilities planning and operations for Kent State University. Pearson, a 2022 Facility Champion Award recipient, has 35 years of facilities experience in K-12, health care, the federal government and higher education.