Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

The best listener is the most charming person

My father was a quiet person but never lacked friends. When I was an unhappy adolescent, I once asked him how he had so many friends. He said, “Just ask other people about themselves, listen to what they say, and take an active interest.”

Years later, I asked a successful image consultant what was the single most important thing one could do to enhance one’s self-presentation skills. She said, “The most charming person is the best listener.” She did not mention technical expertise, appearance, charisma, or other things; she just focused on the importance of listening. It’s something so simple we often forget about it.

Why does being a good listener matter? The ability to communicate well and inspire confidence in others is critical to professional success. Particularly in today’s competitive marketplace, individuals who have the strongest professional networks and relationship-building skills are typically the best financial performers. They also have excellent technical skills, but, to be honest, I take that for granted. It’s just the starting point.

What is known as “active listening” is probably the most important component of successful relationship-building. I use the term “active listening” rather than just listening, because the two are very different. We all listen to sounds, but most of the time, we are merely hearing them. The active listener absorbs what’s being said in a way that is communicated to the other person.

Assume a conversation in which there is a questioner and a respondent. The questioner asks the respondent about something of interest to the questioner. Often, this will be followed by a brief, respectful pause. The respondent then answers appropriately, providing relevant information and not too much or too little of it. While the respondent is speaking, the questioner focuses entirely on the response and clears his/her mind of other matters.

After the respondent has answered, there typically is another pause. Thereafter, the questioner will either make a comment and/or ask another question. This back-and-forth dialogue continues with both individuals playing their original roles, or switching roles from time to time. There is a comfortable, natural, and unhurried rhythm to the process. Information is being shared, a relationship is being cultivated, and trust is being built. This is active listening.

What distinguishes active listening from mere hearing is that the questioner is fully focused on what the respondent is saying and the respondent knows this. The questioner/listener momentarily suspends his/her own thinking, makes excellent eye contact, and may often lean into the conversation.

If someone actively listens to you, it feels like they are genuinely interested in what you are saying and are pulling your best thinking out of you. Consequently, the quality of your communication is enhanced; we all do better when someone is genuinely interested in us.

Too often, when ostensibly listening to someone else, we are in fact thinking primarily about how we will respond so that we appear intelligent and impressive. In reality, this can convey an appearance of disinterest and diminish how we are perceived by the other person. You are, indeed, responsible for holding up your end of a conversation, but you do not need to dominate the dialogue to be successful.

The ability to influence the thinking and behavior of others is a particularly important capability in the workplace. Interestingly, one will be more successful in influencing another’s thinking and behavior through active listening and engaged questioning than through talking at the other person. Influencing is not about convincing; it’s about asking the right questions at the right time and in the optimal way, and then actively listening to what someone else says. The interaction is subtle, but quite powerful.

Whether you want to cultivate your networking skills, grow your business, improve your relationships with colleagues, or just live a richer and fuller life, active listening skills will be important. Anyone can be an active listener. All it takes is some practice, patience, focus and reflection. Try it. You might like it.

Emily Morrow (www.emilymorrow.com) of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives, and HR personnel. She can be reached at [email protected].

Index of Contributed Columns

For information on submitting a contributed column see here.