Overheard in the Office: How Listening in Taught Me To Be a Better Communicator

Corporate worker discussing project plan on landline phone, professional office manager answering call, talking with colleague. Smiling man having telephone conversation in coworking space at night

I’ve spent the past three years slowly but surely working towards earning my Masters in Social Work and becoming a licensed therapist, and as I’ve learned many valuable lessons from my peers and professors in the classroom, I’ve grown personally and professionally even more at my two field education placements, the first at a creative and gritty community service agency, and the second at the outpatient office of a local mental and behavioral health provider

Much of the internship-driven learning has come through the work I’ve done with clients, conversations with colleagues, and feedback from my supervisors, but some of it has come through less predictable avenues. For instance, I’ve learned a fair amount this year by listening in on one side of some important phone conversations.

This sounds questionable, so let me explain. 

At my current internship, my office happens to be next door to the department director’s office. I tend to keep my door open when I’m not seeing clients, and every now and then, the director takes a phone call without shutting her door. Though listening in on others’ phone conversations is typically frowned upon, I literally cannot help but hear her side of the dialogue, with all of 10 feet between us. 

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As I see it, our physical reality absolves me of the fault of nosiness, and so instead of feeling bad about what I can’t help but overhear, I’m going to let myself learn from the way that the director conducts herself.

Here are three lessons I have gained: 

State clearly what you want and need

We all have wants and needs – it’s part of being human – and let’s face it: some people do a better job of expressing their desires than others.

In my estimation, the ability to name your needs is a sign of both maturity and good mental health because it takes emotional courage and vulnerability, and it’s also an almost-necessary prerequisite to actually getting what you need to thrive. We can’t expect the people in our lives to read our minds; we have to be able to do the work of assessing our inner world and stating our desires aloud.

I’m pretty adept at naming my needs to my spouse and friends, but it is harder for me to do this at work. That’s why I was so grateful to overhear an excellent example from my director next door. She cut straight to the chase when she picked up her phone, dialed, and said. “Hey,” to someone who I can only assume is overseeing her in some capacity. “Can we please not rush this project? I can fly by the seat of my pants sometimes, but not all the time, and if we move forward right away on this, it’s going to require a whole lot of flying.” 

Who knows if I’ll ever be in a situation of needing to ask a supervisor or co-leader to pull the reins on an event, but the lesson learned here is that whatever a need or desire is, it can be stated succinctly and clearly.

Ask lots of questions

During the conversation in which my director asked her colleague to slow the pace, she asked a lot of questions. Some of the questions were preceded by an observation: “We’re hiring a new support person, but we’re getting rid of a therapist; could you explain the reasoning for this?” Others were more open-ended: “Can you tell me more about your long-term goals related to this endeavor?” And others – short and sweet – invited her conversation partner to go deeper into the matter at hand: “Why is that?”

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From my perspective, all of these questions served to accomplish two important ends. First, they helped my director gather more information. In my experience of leading and being a part of projects, more information is always better. 

Secondly, the questions likely pointed out issues in the operation. For instance, my guess is that there wasn’t a good reason for the change in staff roles that my director referenced in her first inquiry, but by asking a question rather than pointing out illogic, she came across as inquisitive, not attacking. 

Which brings me to my next point…

Instead of criticizing, say what you’re seeing

There is definitely a way to offer criticism in a productive, respectful manner…but it is not easy, and I definitely gravitate toward other methods of expressing concern. One of those is asking questions, and another – which I also learned through listening in on my director’s conversations – is by making observations. 

I’ve heard her say things like, “Hmmm. It sounds like that’s not working well,” and “I’m not hearing the positives of this current arrangement.” In both of these cases, she highlighted an issue simply by stating something she heard (or didn’t hear). 

In learning how to be a therapist, I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading about conducting assessments, paraphrasing and mirroring client disclosures, and teaching coping skills and strategies. I’m grateful for this formal education, but I’m just as grateful for the luck of office placement and the fact that I’ve learned valuable life lessons simply by overhearing a few phone conversations. The bonus is that this listening-in didn’t cost a single tuition dollar!

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