The Good Listener Trap

 In Blog

In every workplace, there is at least one person who everyone gravitates to for a grizzle and to get problems off their chest. I call them the “resident listener” AKA “the peacemaker”. The resident listener is highly trustworthy, they make others feel cared for and heard, take time even when they don’t have it and never make others wrong.

The resident listener also gets a payoff, at least at the start. They love to help others and enjoy the reputation of being a great support to others in need.  They value workplace harmony, so they see their role as a peacemaker as essential to team friendships and wellbeing. 

But, this also puts them in a high-stress situation.  They hear the sorts of things people are unwilling to say directly to others, the secrets, the negativity, and the mischief.  Often a boss will recognize a resident listener and expect access to information and secrets, with the promise of not disclosing where the information came from.  

Occasionally the resident listener will be so concerned about what they hear that they’ll make attempts to resolve the problem.   Without any authority to fix things, they have to balance shared confidences with loyalty to their employer and are very often unequipped deal with the fallout.  

The truth is, the existence of a resident listener in a team is a symptom that points to poor communication in a work team.  If the team had the tools to communicate well, they would not need a resident listener. 

Let me give you a real-life scenario.  A few months ago, I met with a resident listener middle manager who was worried about her team. She had resigned and was worried about what would happen after she left as everyone relied on her so much.  Everyone, including the boss, used her as a sounding board/peacemaker. 

Her teammates were upset by her leaving, asking how they would cope without her and she was repeatedly asked, “who are we going to talk to now”.  Instead of enjoying her last few weeks in that job, she was heavy with guilt at abandoning everyone but relieved to be able to focus on her work at the new job.

I led a team coaching session and with the permission of the resident listener, I asked the team what they would do with this person moving on.  I was surprised to hear that the team and the boss had had already identified a new peacemaker / resident listener replacement.  After a generic discussion about the pressure of asking someone to be the resident listener I tentatively offered a question to the group. “Why do you need a peacemaker at all?” 

We then had a very insightful and useful discussion about communication and the team created a plan that outlined how to give good communication and how to receive communication well.

After the session, the resident listener came to me in tears, she was worried that her ego willingness to help everyone might have made things worse. Perhaps she should have turned them away she said.  Her willingness to reflect on her own driving needs in this situation would ensure she has a very bright and successful future but being hard on herself was not so helpful.

I offered her these self-coaching questions in case she finds herself as the peacemaker in the next job.

  1. Am I able to ask the person for an opinion about a problem I have or is it just one way? Would they be there if you needed them? If it’s a yes, then you have a relationship if not you are being used to dump negative feelings.
  2. Are they aware of the impact of their needs on my time and my energy? Do they care about me? Are they interested in what I say and think? 
  3. Am I really the best person to be having this conversation with?  If not, suggest they take it up with the person they are complaining about or their supervisor or a properly qualified person.
  4. Do I want to play this role anymore? If yes, then get some coaching skills so you can help them solve their own problems or find a set of words to decline the discussion.
  5. Do I look forward to seeing this person?  Do I feel inspired and motivated after I meeting them? If not, protect your good vibes and say no to the conversation – they’ll soon find someone else.

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Andrea Tunjic

Strategic Human Resources
Team Improvement Initiatives
Leadership Advice & Coaching
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