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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 32, No. 23 * December 18, 2000

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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Two ears, one mouth

As human beings, we are each equipped with two ears and one mouth. This suggests an appropriate relationship between hearing and speaking. For HR professionals, in fact, the issue isn’t so much hearing as listening.

The beautiful Rachel Rosenberg, one of the two “HR Daughters,” is now in medical school. From the midst of the class on osteopathic philosophy, Rachel sent me an e-mail succinctly outlining the core of the philosophy of this patient-oriented practice of medicine: “If you let the patients talk, they will let you know what is wrong. By observing, actively listening and asking pertinent questions, one can accomplish most of the diagnostic process without ordering a single lab test.”

The lessons of this philosophy for management and public administration are very powerful. Active, attentive listening and asking pertinent, job-related questions during interviews, so that the candidates freely express themselves, allows the agency to gather important information in the selection process.

Respectful, careful listening during the conduct of investigations related to discipline, discrimination, or threatening, violent behavior, provides the administrator with critical information to lead to proper conclusions about what happened and about what corrective action is necessary.

In the practice of medicine, physicians spend an average of 13 minutes with each patient. All of us struggle with time management (see HR Doctor article Please Pass the Catch Up, June 12, 2000). We have an increasing reliance on technology and electronics instead of humanity and interpersonal relations.

As administrators, we are under increasing pressure to take short cuts and to rely on technology, whether that technology is voice mail, e-mail, automated attendant, or network computers. However, for us to be successful at work, and in life, we must also break through an over-reliance on technology and take steps to make sure that we do not lose our listening skills.

We must resist the temptation to speak first and speak often without listening or interpreting the information and the cues given to us by employees and clients. Most of what we need to know to address our most serious problems is available right in our own backyard — but not if we don’t pay attention and listen. If we don’t take active steps to improve our listening, the human being of a million or so years from now will evolve to the point of having one very large mouth and one small and marginally functional ear.

Let us agree in public administration to return to the approximate ratio of listening at least twice as often as we speak.

The HR Doctor wishes you good listening and all the best.



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