Being a good listener as a manager

06 September 2018

How would you react if your team member opened up to you in a candid way; for instance to tell you that they had been feeling low? Mental health problems affect many of us at some point. If your team member feels like they have a good relationship with you, and particularly if their emotions are affecting their performance, they may turn to you for support.

In this situation, it can be easy to feel unsure about how best to help. You may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, or feel like you’re not qualified to give emotional support in the work setting.

In reality, this fear is often unnecessary. When people open up to others about their feelings, it’s not usually because they want the other person to solve the problem for them. They generally just want to be heard and for you to simply be a good listener1

Suggesting practical steps

In some scenarios, suggesting a practical step is certainly appropriate. For example, you might suggest that they contact your organisation’s employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one, or take some time off work. But just remember that your team member may not always be looking for you to try to fix things for them in a practical sense. Jumping straight in with solutions without fully listening is not the way to go.2

Don’t dismiss the problem

These responses may not be so helpful:

  • ‘You’ll feel better soon. Haven’t you got that holiday coming up?’: Trying to cheer someone up is obviously well-intentioned, but may be counter-productive and give the impression you’re not taking their emotions seriously.
  • ‘Things could be a lot worse’: Again, this can suggest that you don’t fully understand or appreciate why the person is feeling low.

A more helpful response: being an active listener

  • Meet face-to-face if you can, rather than video conferencing or talking on the telephone.
  • Be present and give them your full attention when you’re talking with them.
  • Turn off your phone so you’re not distracted. Try not to look at your computer, your watch or the clock on the wall.
  • Use your body language to demonstrate that you’re fully present in the conversation. Turn towards them and make eye contact. Nodding, facial expressions and saying things like ‘I see’ or ‘Right’ can be encouraging and show that you’re invested.
  • Try not to interrupt if they’re explaining how they feel.
  • Try not to impose your solutions upon them.
  • Think for a moment before you respond. Don’t be afraid of moments of silence.

Remember that everyone and every situation is different. You’ll know what’s appropriate. It doesn’t always need to be an intense or long talk. Once you get started, you may well find the conversation flows naturally.

Giving someone your time is one of the most important things you can offer. Let your team member know that if talking to you helps, then you’ll always be there to listen. If your organisation has policies around mental health support, refer to these. You may also find our workplace mental health hub a useful source of guidance.


1SHUSH listening tips. Samaritans., accessed August 2018

2What Great Listeners Actually Do. Harvard Business Review., published July 2016

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Being a good listener as a manager| workplace wellness| Bupa UK