The point of developing listening skills is not to show off your virtuosity at paraphrasing, summarizing and asking a penetrating open-ended question. It’s not so you can dazzle with your brilliance. You don’t listen carefully so you can argue with someone about what they did or didn’t say, or what they did or didn’t mean. (A client once told me how he’d used his smart pen to play back a conversation so he could prove that his colleague had used a particular phrase. Just thinking about this makes me cringe.) Listening is not a weapon. Listening is transformational, capable of turning the most mundane conversation into a rich exploration. And what makes the difference is not perfect technique or perfect recall. The difference is your intention.
If you aren’t interested in what someone has to say, all the listening skills in the world won’t help you. But if you’re curious, even the most basic listening skills can make an encounter fascinating. So if you’re not listening to prove yourself or to “win,” what are you listening for?
You listen so you can help your client have the best conversation they’ve had all week. You listen to make them smarter. We’ve all had moments when we aren’t even listening to ourselves, much less to anyone else. Everyone does, no matter where they sit on the org chart. Just this morning, in pilates class, my teacher said “put your heels on the bar” while reaching down and putting my toes on the bar. When I said “Heels or toes?” She flushed, laughed out loud and slowed down, being much more careful, thoughtful and specific for the rest of the class. Isn’t that what we all want from our conversations? Even if you are an administrative assistant, and your clients are high on you company’s org chart, you can use listening skills to help them slow down and listen to that crazy sentence that just came out of their mouth. There’s another reason to listen, one that’s especially relevant for consultants.
You listen to prevent yourself from working harder than your client. We’ve all done it: We find ourselves doing most of the talking, probably because we are anxious about our ability to help, or excited at the opportunity to make a difference or just plain loopy from exhaustion. When you’re doing most of the talking, you’re going to end up with most of the responsibility. If you were hoping to establish a partnership, you’ve just sent the wrong message. Listening skills help you stop talking and listen. This alone will make you appear more thoughtful, smarter, and more helpful. It will make you act like a thought partner.
The choice is simple: Show them how smart you are and stay a pair-of-hands in their eyes, or activate your curiosity and listen your way into thought partnership. Here’s how to jumpstart your curiosity:
1. Stop talking.
2. Stop formulating your brilliant response.
3. You must interest yourself first. Let the silence between you grow big enough to hold a brand new idea. Let the silence inside you grow big enough for several ideas to collide and turn into wondering. When the silence in you is big enough to hold your ignorance – the things you don’t know about the person you’re talking to, about their goals, their sensitivities, their strengths, or about the situation – then it’s time to ask a question.
4. Ask from the wellspring of your interest. Don’t worry about the right technique or the right phrasing. If you are fascinated, the question will phrase itself and the conversation will come alive.
Curiosity and genuine interest are contagious. Fascinate yourself first.