“It struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. He had ‘leadership qualities’ which I had never seen in any other man. Never had I seen such concentrated attention. His eyes were mild and genial, his voice low and kind. His gestures were few. But the attention he gave me, his appreciation for what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You’ve no idea what it meant to be listened to like that.” The narrator describes his experience of meeting one of the world greatest ever listeners, Sigmund Freud.
The late great Dale Carnegie How To Win Friends And Influence People tells the story of a time when he met a woman at a dinner party, who had heard about his travels to Europe and was desperate to hear all about it. She commented that she and her husband had recently returned from a holiday in Africa.
“Africa!” I exclaimed “How interesting! I’ve always wanted to see Africa, bit I never got there except for a 24 hour stay once in Algiers.” Dale Carnegie went on to ask if she visited the big game reserves and over the next 45 minutes, she proceeded to tell him all about her wonderful trip. She never again asked him where he had been in Europe or what he had seen. She didn’t really want to know – all she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and relive her memories.
Is this unusual? No. Most people are like that. Most of us prefer to talk than to listen. There is a saying:
We were all born with two ears and one mouth, but we don’t use them in proportion.
Dale Carnegie knew the art of listening. He could listen for hours to people talking about what interested them most, without hardly saying a word, but still be known as a ‘good conversationalist’.
Years ago a Dutch immigrant boy whose family lived in poverty, had to gather coal in the streets that had fallen off coal wagons, instead of going to school and yet Edward Bok went on to become one of America’s greatest magazine editors. At the age of 13, he started work as an office boy for Western Union, but he was fascinated by the lives of famous people. He decided to write to them asking for details of their childhood and how they became successful. He wrote to the then President of The United States, famous inventors, industrialists and politicians. And they all replied. Before long, he was corresponding with many of the most famous people in the Nation. They all invited him for holidays, as a welcome guest in their homes. ‘This experience imbued him with a confidence that was invaluable. These men and women fired him with a vision and ambition that shaped his life’.
All because he was a great listener, genuinely interested in other people.
I once came up against an extremely irate and obnoxious customer. (I suppose we all do at some stage of our working life!) He was furious – ranting about my staff being rude to him, not following our procedures and not acknowledging our mistakes. He had written copious letters of complaint; phoned on twenty occasions; he was threatening legal action; wanted his money back and all his accounts closed. Different staff became involved and despite trying desperately to resolve the situation and explain why certain decisions had been made, he accused them of conspiring and making excuses. The matter became so vitriolic that the staff, including several managers who had been involved, couldn’t cope with him and every attempt to try to resolve the situation just seemed to antagonise him further.
As soon as the situation was referred to me, I picked up the phone, explained who I was and offered to meet him at a time and place convenient to him. “You mean you are actually prepared to listen to my justified complaints about your staff and take me seriously?” Yes I said. So we met and he ranted on for nearly 3 hours. I listened patiently to everything he had to say, making notes on key issues I felt were important to him and displaying empathy for his situation. Never interrupting, I just listened, paying attention to every word. Finally he ran out of steam. I thanked him for letting me know about all the issues. I apologised and explained that I couldn’t solve everything or change the poor experience he felt he’d suffered, but that I did take everything he said seriously and that I will do my best to ensure we improve our service to him in the future.
That was the last thing in the world I think he expected me to say. He had come ready for a fight and here I was agreeing with him, (on the premise that the customer is always right), apologising, listening genuinely to his concerns and being honest about the outcome.
A few days later another letter arrived. This time addressed to my boss, saying I was one of the most professional, courteous and honest people he had ever had the pleasure to meet and that I was a credit to the organisation. After reflecting on his own behaviour he apologised and admitted that he may originally have been wrong in the first place. He remains a loyal customer and significant introducer of new business to that organisation, to this day.
If you want to win the respect of your team, your peers, your boss, your customers and your competitors, DON’T talk incessantly about yourself. If you have an idea while the other person is talking DON’T interrupt in the middle of a sentence. People who talk only of themselves, think only of themselves. ‘A persons toothache means more to that person than a famine in Africa which kills a million people.’
So, if you aspire to be a great leader, an inspirationalist and good conversationalist, be an active listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask meaningful, relevant questions that other people will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.
Ask better questions and the result will be better answers.
Real listening develops emotional intelligence. You learn far more by listening to your team and the people in your life than by talking. Daniel Goleman The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership describes the rare leadership qualities of a ‘Level 5 leader’ – leaders who get the best results are often humble and show a great deal of empathy with their team.
Leadership qualities of humility and empathy come only through listening actively, engaging your teams and creating a culture where they feel they have a voice, where their opinions and ideas are listened to, encouraged and nurtured. This leads to empowerment and creativity, vital components of building top performing teams and great leadership.
Watch out though. Listening can be one of the hardest leadership skills to learn. You will often have to stop yourself… just when you are about to wade in with reams of your own ‘great ideas’; just when you know you have all the answers. STOP. Instead of making suggestions, offering solutions and giving your opinions, ASK. Question your team – get them to come up with the answers. Sit back and LISTEN. You will be amazed at what you hear. This leadership skill takes great practice and much self-awareness and reflection, but I encourage you to spend most of your time as a leader living to Paretos 80/20 principle. Listen 80% of the time and talk only 20% – the results will astound you.
Next week we will take a look at creativity. In thinking there is creating, in creating there is doing, in doing there is learning, in learning there is success.
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” George Bernard Shaw
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