Case Study – How To Turn Your Boss Into A Better Listener

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on May 13, 2009

Here’s a case study involving one of my coaching clients who experienced the power of listening well in transforming her relationship with her boss.

Harriet Davis (the name was changed to protect the innocent and the guilty!) swore to me that her boss was the worst boss in the world.  When I asked her to explain, this is what she said.

“He does what he darn well wants to do, no matter what I say.”  I then asked her how she was at listening to her boss, and she admitted to me that she probably could do a lot better.  “He’s just so frustrating to deal with!” she exclaimed, as if this explained her problem with him.

I nodded and mm-hmm’d as she said it.  Then I asked her, “What frustrates you about dealing with him?”  She replied that he was a bully, that he was demanding and inconsiderate, and disrespectful too.  I asked her how she was with him when he talked to her, and she admitted to being impatient, angry, and wanting to get away.  “I’d just as soon tune him out as listen to him.” I acknowledged her feelings of frustration, and told her I would find those behaviors of his frustrating too, and, just to make her laugh, said ‘Better you than me!”  I knew we were connecting when she laughed.  I would have had some explaining to do had she not laughed!

I then asked her a question.  “Harriet, what would you think if I told you that you could get a better result with your boss if you listened to him better before you talked?”  Her eyes narrowed, she seemed to focus on my face intently, and then asked “How is that even possible?”  I explained to her that people love to hear themselves talk, people are drawn to people who listen, and people want to be heard and understood, that information is power, and that you can persuade people with your ears by learning what’s important to them and then responding in kind.

Then I asked her if she’d be willing to try an experiment to find out if she could turn her boss into a better listener by being a better listener herself.  She listened intently, as we set up the framework for the experiment.

Three weeks later, when she came to her next coaching appointment, my first question was “How is the experiment going?”  And this is what she told me.

“For three weeks, I’ve done what you said the way you said to do it.  I’ve set aside my differences with him, and focused on areas of agreement.  When he tells me what he wants to do, instead of telling him why he’s wrong, I ask him to help me understand it better.  Then I do ask him questions about his answers, and quite often, my questions help me to understand problems in his answers, and help him understand problems with his answers at the same time, without me having to tell him anything.  And the strangest thing has happened.  I swear, I never could have predicted this.  But he is now coming to me and asking my opinion, and really considering it before making up his mind, on a whole bunch of things.  How is this possible?”

I told her I could explain it, but first, I wanted to know how it feels for her to get this different result from someone who only three weeks earlier had seemed impossible to deal with. She told me that “I feel disoriented and confused!”  and then she qualified it, “ but in a good way!” and she laughed.

I said, “Harriet, here’s what happened.  Your listening in the way I taught you has taught him how to listen to his own thoughts.  Before you started asking questions, it hadn’t occurred to him to question his own thinking.  That’s pretty common in these kinds of boss/employee relationships.  And because you set such a great example for him, he’s beginning to model your behavior, and listen to you in return.   Stick with it, and it will become as natural as can be!”

I’d love to hear your comments, and your stories!

be well,


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