How EMS leaders can inspire employees by listening

When supervisors really listen, they light fires of loyalty that motivate employees to bust their butts to make the supervisor and the organization more successful


Updated February 2015

It was one of those difficult middle-of-the-night pediatric asthma calls. As my partner tended to the patient, I got into an ugly argument with the father about his delay in calling. The child survived, but what I remember most about this call, more than 30 years later, is what happened the next day.

I was still angry and sought out my supervisor, Rick, to complain about the call. It was a Monday morning and Rick clearly had other things to do, but he invited me into his office, offered a chair and sat down to listen.

Nowadays, few supervisors will disagree that listening is an important activity, but I continue to discover that many don’t get what it means to really listen—to listen in a way that invites deep loyalty and engagement. Too often, the listening is passive or patronizing.

Passive listening simply lets the words come. Because good supervisors listen, we shut up and let someone talk but aren’t sure why. Passive listening is what we do before we end the conversation with the usual obligatory managerial advice and warnings. Having done a lot of passive listening myself, I know it’s a kind of mercy listening meant to placate the troops. The ear is cocked and the words are heard, but mostly, thoughts center on formulating a response, trying to appear concerned or wondering how long we need to be in the listening position.

Patronizing listening is a bit more advanced and draws on our knowledge of active listening techniques. It’s a demonstrative kind of listening in which we lean into the conversation and say, “Uh-huh” and “I see” and rephrase statements to show that we get it. We might offer upbeat encouragement like, “How did that make you feel?” and “Tell me more.” This looks good and perhaps even feels good to the person speaking. But if we’re not really listening, we’re missing a big opportunity.

Rick was one of those rare supervisors who saw listening differently. When he sat down in a chair next to me, he let out a big sigh—as if to clear his brain of everything else—and said, “Okay, tell me what’s going on.” As he listened, I could tell by his genuine response that he heard more than my words and wasn’t just practicing a listening skill. At one point anger rose in his eyes and he swore under his breath. At another point he burst out laughing, and before I was even finished he had jumped to his feet, interrupted me and took off ranting about what he couldn’t fix. My soul sang. Rick had heard me because he was listening with his heart.

Rick’s heart listening included a couple of important assumptions. Rick assumed that beyond my need to complain, I had something valuable to say. He also assumed that one of his most important Monday morning tasks was to get down and roll around in the loamy details of one of his employees’ concerns. He also assumed that such personal listening would pay off.

So what’s the big deal besides being another column on listening? Listening with an open heart is scary stuff. It’s as scary as working a button-nosed 6-year-old in respiratory arrest because it has big risks (which is why it’s rarely done). When Rick opened his heart to listen, it meant he risked feeling my anger, experiencing my frustration, walking in my shoes, understanding what I was feeling, and then maybe not having a thing to offer in return. That’s hard. Just try it with your spouse, kid or retired parent.

When supervisors really listen, they light fires of loyalty that motivate employees to bust their butts to make the supervisor and the organization more successful. And as a practiced habit, listening saves tons of time because it builds a foundation of trust, which is the necessary ingredient to liberal delegation.

Rick had keyed into what all people want from their love lives, their parents, their friends—and that is simply to be heard with an open heart.

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