Is listening the most important skill a creative manager can have?

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

If you’re an independent contributor (IC) on a creative team in tech or in a tech-adjacent field—like writing, design, or video—your direct manager also likely has a background in a creative area.

Many writing managers are (or were) also writers; many design managers are (or were) product designers themselves.

This isn’t always the case, of course. Some designers report to product managers, for example, and some writers report to marketing managers. Some video producers report to engineering managers.

But no matter what your company’s org structure looks like, a few things hold true. You have responsibilities, your manager has other responsibilities, and the company at large has has goals.

Your manager can only help you with your responsibilities and goals if there’s clear communication between you—on both ends.

You’ll always have some sort of a relationship with your manager

In a good relationship, your manager motivates and inspires you, keeps your projects unblocked, sets expectations, and helps you reach your goals.

If you and your manager have a good relationship, pause here for a moment of gratitude.

In a less-than-good relationship, your manager overworks and demotivates you, creates blocks, sets unrealistic expectations (or none at all), and leaves you to figure things out entirely on your own.

One of the main differences between these two kinds of relationships is the ability and willingness of your manager to listen and listen well.

What does it mean to listen?

Many new managers go through some sort of management training, although many don’t have any training at all. If you’re a new manager lucky enough to have some training, you’ve likely heard of active listening.

With active listening, the listener repeats back to the speaker what they’ve heard them say, and asks if they’ve heard the speaker correctly.

For example, “I hear you saying you’d like more mentorship opportunities with the design interns. Am I hearing that correctly?”

The practice of active listening, when done by the book, can feel a little contrived. Many people feel distinctly uncomfortable using such an obvious management-training tactic.

But the reality is if you, as a listener, can’t repeat back what the person has said, it’s unlikely you’ll retain anything they’ve asked of you.

What does listening look like?

Think about a time when you’ve talked to someone who appeared to be listening. Perhaps it was a manager in your weekly one-on-one meeting.

They nodded their head, made concerned expressions at the right time, and responded with “listening” sounds like ohhh, ahh, and mm-hmm.

You talked and talked, they nodded and smiled, and you left the meeting feeling like you got a lot off your chest, convinced your manager will now take the right next steps.

At your next one-on-one, you ask if there’s been any update on the thing you brought up the last time.

They stare at you with blank eyes and you realize, suddenly, that they hadn’t listened at all the previous week. They don’t even know what you’re talking about.

On the other side of the spectrum is the manager who makes listening sounds and expressions, but who actually listens.

When you meet with them for a follow-up, they know what you’re talking about, and help guide you to a resolution.

Only listening is listening—everything else is a charade

Listening can’t be demonstrated only through the right facial expressions and sounds. It can’t be demonstrated by saying, “I’m listening,” or even, “I hear you.”

The only way listening can be demonstrated is through actions that clearly show you’ve heard the other person. If your actions don’t match your pantomime, you haven’t listened at all.

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