Too Good a Listener? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I had a big job and got a lot of manager training early in my working life. Then a series of events (I had a child with special needs, then another one, parents needing care, husband making enough to sustain the family) conspired to make me leave the workforce for about a decade.

I recently took what I intended to be a sales associate job in a large retail store. I wanted something that wouldn’t be too taxing and would bring in a little extra cash while my kids were in school. I was quickly promoted to a manager position.

I enjoy the work. It is low stress in that I don’t take work home with me. My problem is this: there is a rotating cast of characters in hourly positions who all report to me. The store offers a lot of flexibility, so we attract college kids on their summer break, young moms, retirees, etc. I have regular one-on-one meetings with each of them.

I have found the more I listen to people (something I am good at), the more they will talk. They tell me so much more than I need to hear. People call me at all hours to ask for advice, update me on a situation, or sometimes share good news.

My husband teases me and calls me the Doctor (based on Lucy in the Charlie Brown comics) and rolls his eyes at the number of calls and texts that come in my off hours.

I love these people, but I feel like they are eating at my life and I don’t know how to stop them. I don’t really even want to stop it, so much as control it. I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

The Doctor Is In


Dear The Doctor Is In,

I understand your frustration. As problems go, this is a good one. Having listening as a superpower is indeed a gift—but like most gifts, it can be a double-edged sword. This means your gift has a dark side and you have found it.

When I was training to become a coach and developing my own listening skills, I experienced the exact same thing. The more we listen, the more people talk. It is so rare to find someone who really listens—without interrupting, hijacking the conversation, making it about themselves, or outlining a solution—that once the floodgates open, it can be hard to close them. You have inadvertently stumbled over a universal law: the more you listen with empathy and compassion, the more people will talk.

I know the Doctor thing is a joke—but the fact is, you have been placing yourself in service to others. To be heard and listened to is extremely healing. It is no accident that millions of people make a profession of listening.

The question: how to control it.

The answer: ground rules and boundaries.

You are a manager, so it is fair to set the expectation that all conversations between you and your direct reports have a time limit and should revolve around work. Keep your questions focused on the job and the work environment and keep any curiosity you may have about the person’s life in check. Topics could revolve around these themes:

  • Do people have what they need to do the job?
  • How is their schedule working; do they need to make changes?
  • Is there anything you can do to make their time at work more engaging or pleasant?

When issues begin to stray, gently redirect back to work topics.

It may be tricky to curtail your entanglement with people you already have a relatively personal relationship with, so focus first on new employees and getting the newest manager/employee relationships off on the right foot. Set your ground rules as expectations in the beginning when you explain what a 1×1 is. It will probably feel weird to you because you’ll have some habits to break, but a little discipline will go a long way.

Setting boundaries may take some practice. In your case, though, it is surprisingly simple. You took the job specifically because you wanted to leave work at work and spend your personal time doing other things (in your case, taking care of your family). I think it is supremely reasonable to reply to anyone from work who contacts you off hours with a polite and firm text message such as: “I am at home focused on my family right now, and look forward to speaking with you tomorrow when we are at work.”

For the people who are used to having after-hours access to you, it may help to speak to them about the impending change. For new people, you will set the expectation up front. For more on boundaries, I am a fan of the work of Dr. Henry Cloud.

It might be useful to think about what core need you are getting met that has gotten you into this pickle. Allowing your needs to drive your behavior isn’t a bad thing, until it starts interfering with how you function or how you want to design your life. The key is to find a way to get needs met that doesn’t cost you more than you want to pay. In your case, it is probably a deep need for connection and/or to help others. This is a classic psychological driver—and, as many people in the helping professions will tell you, the need for help out there is infinite. So if you don’t manage your own needs and set boundaries for how much you are willing and able to give, people will take and take until there is nothing left of you.

You have a big and loving heart, Doctor. The world could use a lot more people like you. Only you can take the required steps to treat that heart with the respect and care it deserves. That way you can keep on giving and still have enough left for yourself and your family for the rest of your life.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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