Listening Tips for an Employee Relations Case

Create an Environment That Supports Listening

Talk in a quiet office, with the door shut to ensure privacy. Turn the ringer off on your phone or send it directly to voice mail. If possible, don't have a desk between you unless you anticipate one or both of you needing a space for writing. In those cases, a small table feels more comfortable than a desk. If you are going to take notes, let the employee know you'll be jotting down a few notes to help you organize your thoughts.

Prepare yourself to give the employee a fair chance to be heard without pre-judging, impatience, or recriminations.

Body Language

Body language is powerful, so don't underestimate what you're communicating! Show a genuine interest as you listen. Move distracting materials away from you. Explain that you need a moment to reduce the distractions and to ensure you won't be disturbed.
  • Sit face to face.
  • Avoid showing impatience by rocking your chair, tapping you pencil or other actions, which distract.
  • Don’t keep glancing at the clock, cell phone, or computer.
  • Keep your body language open (refrain from crossing your arms) so that you convey that you are ready and willing to listen objectively.

Questions, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing

At first, listen with a minimum of interruption. Later, probe for facts and feelings, but don’t argue. Let the speaker have time and space to freely share any concerns. When he has finished, restate his position to confirm your understanding of the situation. Make notes of all the facts and check the situation.

Avoid asking loaded questions – “What’s the excuse this time for not meeting your project date?” Instead ask, "What is keeping you from meeting the deadline?" in a non-punishing manner.

Determine the underlying cause behind an employee’s complaint or grievance.

If the situation requires a decision from you that you aren't prepared to give, tell him when he can expect an answer. If the final answer is “no,” explain the reasons and try to help the employee to accept it.


If the employee seems to be holding in his feelings, try to learn what these are and how deeply they run. It may be helpful if you attempt to identify and tentatively, reflect a feeling back to the individual. "You seem a little disappointed by that decision," will allow the employee an opportunity to confirm or clarify his feeling.  Other times a direct, "How are you feeling about that?" may be the best approach.

Other times, emotions such as anger or sadness may overwhelm an individual. Allowing the person time and space to express emotions can be helpful as long as it doesn't escalate into shouting or a more aggressive behavior. Try reflecting back the emotion by summarizing it, "Wow, you seem really angry about this. I had no idea." can help an individual describe their emotions more clearly and move them toward a more objective position. Failing to acknowledge emotion, however, communicates that you do not understand the situation and will often lead to increased emotion. Once acknowledged however, emotions may dissipate, allowing for an objective discussion to proceed.

HR Resources

The Employee Relations Team can support you in preparing for a conversation. Please email us at if you wish to schedule a consultation.