Dear Dan: How Do You Get Lousy Managers to Listen

Dear Dan,

I am an attorney. I have a client involved in a worker’s comp claim against the County. This is a small rural county.

The claim arose because the man works in mental health and is often dealing with workplace violence due to the type of clients.

In my research into the situation I found many former workers who have categorized the management as being unresponsive to workers’ complaints . The managers are often verbally abusive in front of other employees.

I have a declaration from one former employee stating it is the worst place she has ever worked and she would never recommend working there to anyone.

The workplace atmosphere appears to be ruled by fear; fear of losing a job, fear of offending management, fear that an employee may be next on the list of employees who get targeted by management.

My question, how do you get managers to listen?


No one is listening

Dear No One,

I assume you’re asking this as an outsider. You don’t have the relationship or opportunity to help the County’s managers listen better. I also assume they feel an adversarial relationship with you.

However, your question is useful across the board.

Don’t go with your gut:

The first thing that comes to mind is probably the last thing you should do when it comes to helping others.

We often resort to force when we aren’t getting what we want. 

You can’t force people to listen.

Force invites resistance.

Barriers protect from perceived threat. Don’t be a threat if you want people to listen.

Go against your gut:

Empathy lowers resistance.

If you want people to listen to you, make them feel understood.

#1. Describe the stress others feel.

It doesn’t matter that stress is self-imposed. The issue is making things better. You could say, “If you weren’t acting like idiots, you wouldn’t be under these stresses.”  

Accusations create distance.

You could say, “I bet you feel stressed out about managing employees.” Raise your eyebrows in curiosity, after describing someone’s stress. Make space for them to talk.

Leaders receive little empathy. Extend empathy, not judgement, and see what happens.

#2. Listen without offering suggestions.

Let empathy stand on its own. Listen and learn. Don’t make suggestions.

If you’re fortunate enough to see vulnerability in another, don’t try to fix them.

The bond of empathy opens hearts. Quick solutions invite resistance.

People want to feel understood before they’re interested in your solutions.

Use curiosity:

The more you need to say, the more you need to listen.

One of my favorite questions is, “What have you already tried to fix this?” This question accomplishes four things.

  1. You express interest.
  2. You don’t offer suggestions that have already been tried.
  3. You provide opportunity for reflection. (A great gift.)
  4. You create a conversation.

Follow up with, “How did it work?” Search for small improvements to affirm.

They might say, “It didn’t work.” Ask, “I wonder if there were any small improvements?”

Help people rise above the need for perfect solutions.

Progress solves problems. It’s not about magic. It’s about grinding out the next step.

Explore resistance:

You experience resistance when you offer suggestions to people who don’t listen. They’ll quickly say, “That won’t work.”

Go on an exploration when people say, “That won’t work.”

  1. “Ahhhh. What makes you say that?”
  2. “Hmmm. What else won’t work?”

Make a list of everything that won’t work. Yes, write it down.

The worst thing you can do is face resistance with explanations and solutions.

When you explain to a resistant person why something WILL work, they come up with more reasons why it won’t work.

After you’ve listened to things that won’t work, say, “I see what won’t work. What might work?” Raise your eyebrows, sit back and relax. Don’t talk.

Acknowledge that solving tough issues is difficult.

How to make suggestions that earn consideration:

After listening, gently offer suggestions.

  1. I wonder if….?
  2. Have you considered….?
  3. What about….?
  4. I talked with another manager who tried ….

You may need to avoid making suggestions for several days. But when you offer suggestions, be sure they ARE suggestions.

Join the team:

People are more likely to listen to someone who’s rowing the boat with them. Let people know you’re on their team.

Expect resistance if you’re yelling answers from the beach.

You have my best,


How might you help managers listen?

Note: I suspend my 300 word limit on the weekends.