Occasionally I have been asked what is the most important skill related to communications, marketing or business development, at least in the professional services environment in which I dwell. I always answer with one word:
Most people, when they hear my imparted wisdom, usually wait to see if I’m planning to add anything to that. “That’s it?” they ask. “That’s it,” I respond. Some respond positively, even though it’s not quite the answer they were expecting. Others look at me, say something like, “well, that’s very interesting,” and clearly write off my opinion. More often than not, though, to listen is to take control of a conversation or a meeting and likely dictate the outcome. Think about it. You hopefully already know what’s in your own head. But you don’t know what’s in someone else’s. One of the few ways (and sometimes the only way) to learn that is to listen to what they’re saying.
And by listening, I really mean paying attention. Too much in our business (and often personal) lives, high-functioning people fall into the habit of multitasking when they are in a meeting, in a conversation, on a conference call. It looks like they might be listening to what‘s being said, but they’re really not. Or, just as bad, people aren’t really listening because they’re already thinking about what they’re going to say next because they have a set agenda or want to impress. I see it in my pre-teen kids, who are desperate sometimes to participate in conversations with the “grown-ups” if the topic is moderately interesting. They follow the conversation for a little while, and often contribute something interesting at first, but when the conversation naturally turns to a different topic, their next comment is pretty non-sequitur. I’ve watched their facial expressions and body language when this occurs, and it’s pretty clear that they weren’t really listening to what’s being said since they were busy thinking about what they were going to say next.
While this is certainly excusable behavior from a 12-year-old (and actually pretty typical), it’s not really acceptable in a business setting. Yet, I’ve seen it happen over and over. And every once in while, I’m guilty of it, too. When it’s happened, I have to remind myself to start listening (paying attention) or risk being seen as a buffoon, or perhaps more charitably, as clueless or rude. None of these is a good result, obviously. The whole issue of multitasking and not listening will be fodder for another blog entry.
There are whole seminars and training sessions that cover listening in a business or educational environment (often discussing conflict resolution and sometimes using the silly and redundant title of “active listening”), so I won’t pretend to compete here with any feigned expertise. But I will be frequently discussing various aspects of listening and its importance in communications.
Hope you’re listening.