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Marcie Hopkins, University of Utah Health
How to Step Back and Give People Space to Speak
Learning to listen is not only a leadership skill—it’s a life skill. Leadership training specialist Jess Burgett shares three practical tips for harnessing the power of listening with intent.

e’ve all been through a lot over the past several years. Working in health care has left many feeling exasperated, lost, and burnt out. The idea of listening right now probably feels like one more thing on your plate. But now, more than ever, we need to step back and give people space to speak. 

As a leadership training specialist, my goal is to help leaders support their frontline workers by simply listening. Over the past year of coaching at U of U Health, I’ve found the following three practices resonate most with local leaders in improving their listening skills.   

1. Practice, practice, practice  

We typically don’t sit down with someone with the intent to just listen. Often, when people come to us, we have a reaction to what they’re saying. We assume they are looking for solutions or advice, rather than just space to speak.  

Sometimes, the person just needs to hear themselves talk and feel validated for what they’re thinking.

When someone approaches you, take it as an opportunity to purely listen, instead of immediately reacting.  

When you’re more proactive in seeking out listening opportunities, you become more skilled. Then, when someone comes to you, you’ll know how to sit back and let them speak. You won’t constantly feel like, "I need to fix something." 

Ideally, the person coming to you would also say, "Hey, in this moment, here's exactly what I need to get out of the conversation. I don't need you to do X, Y, and Z – I just need you to listen.”  

2. Stay curious – “Tell me more …” 

When you’re curious, you learn something new about a situation, a person, or just life in general—you might even find that there are better ways to do things or interesting ideas. You might discover common ground. In these moments, there are great opportunities for people to learn, to be stretched, and to be challenged.  

If you utilize your curiosity, you will want to listen more. Listen for similar values that both you and the speaker share to pique your interest and help you stay in the moment.  

Practice vocalizing your intention to be curious: “My intent today is to learn something new.” You can also try these prompts to show people you are interested and willing to give them space. Your curiosity will give them the confidence to open up and talk: 

  • “I’m curious about____ and would like to hear your perspective.” 

  • “I also value_____ and would love to hear what you have to say.”  

Sometimes we feel caught off guard by an answer or request. Stay curious: 

  • “Can you tell me more about that?” 

  • “That’s important. Can you help me understand _____ ?” 

Don’t feel compelled to solve the problem in the moment. Simply listen from a place of learning. Take time to reflect on the matter, even if it means scheduling a follow-up meeting.  

3. Reschedule if you’re distracted  

In health care especially, we feel compelled to act when someone comes to us, even when we’re not our best selves. In the words of Brene Brown, “clear is kind.” We need to be aware of moments when we’re too distracted to fully listen. We must respect the other person’s time enough to be honest with them and let them know that you need to reschedule.  

Practice getting comfortable with telling the speaker that we need to pick up the conversation at another time. Let the speaker know that they deserve your full attention, and that you have every intention to listen, but the current environment isn’t allowing for that, and you need to reschedule.  

We all need to be heard 

Learning to listen—really listen—is a powerful life skill. By carving out time to practice listening, stay curious, and be fully present, we engage in a fundamental act of kindness and respect. We all remember the leaders in our lives who really listened to us. Are you one of them?

Originally published September 2022


Jessica Burgett

Leadership Training Specialist, University of Utah Health

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