Listen…Don’t shut down

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Steven Herdler
  • 22nd Maintenance Group Superintendent
While visiting the Senior Non Commissioned Officers' Academy a couple years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on the retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force panel. One question asked was "How do you feel about redoing the Enlisted Performance Report and what would you recommend changing?" CMSAF #9 Binniker crossed his arms and grunted, "Leave it the way it is!" You can bet that no more EPR questions were asked that morning. As one of the chiefs started to answer another question, Chief Binniker politely interrupted and said "I don't understand what you're looking for. What are you really asking?" These were two very different responses coming from the same man. I suspect that knowing how the chiefs would receive specific topics would have made that panel more productive.

Listening to that exchange, I was reminded of a flight chief I worked for years earlier. He had the healthiest manners in dealing with problems I've ever seen. When ever one of us would bring him a heated issue, he would always let us say our piece, and then start his fact-finding questions. He referred to this process as, "the other side of the coin." He would often pull out a piece of paper and have us write our issues on one side and then have us write the opposing argument and underlying issues on the other side. It seemed to work pretty well and if nothing else, we knew he would hear us out. Most often, we left his office with the problem solved and feeling pretty good about the outcome, even if it wasn't what we were aiming for.

My wife and I currently attend a marriage enrichment program called Marriage for Keeps. Among other things, they emphasize "listening to understand" and "making it safe to connect." These are actually basic counseling skills many of us learned through Professional Military Education but often neglect in both our work and family life. We have certain hot-button issues that cause us to act emotionally rather than rationally. If my wife suggests buying a new car, we don't get far in the conversation before I shut down. I don't want the car payment; whether we need a new car or not. I also fight her on painting the house, the current paint is fine in my opinion, so she waits until I deploy, has her mother visit for a week, and they paint it while I'm gone.

When our coworkers or family members figure out what we're not receptive to, they may side step those issues or worse, handle the issue on their own without consulting or coordinating with us. That could end up wasting someone's time, prove costly, or even be illegal. So first, we should consider making it safe for the person to connect or engage us on the issue. That may be as simple as telling them that you are ready to discuss the issue and you won't shut them down. Next, make sure you understand the issue and make sure they know that you understand. After that, the problem solving becomes easy and you'll be amazed at how productive your team or your family will be.