A question I often ask when running leadership development programs is, “How many of you know people who are ‘gold medal’ listeners?” Usually about one-third of the people in the audience raise their hands.
Only one-third. Less than half the room. We can – and we must – do better.
We all know people who like to talk about themselves – a lot! They usurp entire conversations, coffee breaks, dinners, and meetings talking about themselves. People who love the sound of their own voice and who desperately need to be introduced to the question mark.
The really scary part is, if you don’t know someone like that, that person may be YOU!
Trusted advisors know the value of listening. Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) has a timeless quote:
“…you can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
And The Trusted Advisor author Charles H. Green offers this caution in his blog, Is Self-orientation Killing Your Trustworthiness?
When operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our head drowns them out.
So how do we show up as a “gold medal” listener? Like many things in trust-building, it’s a combination of having the right mindset and applying the right skills.
The Spotlight Mindset
Think about the last time you went to a live performance – a play, or a concert. There was someone behind the scenes whose job it was to make sure the performers were always in the spotlight; that they could always be seen.
While the skill of the spotlight operator is important, the spotlight itself is a tool to illuminate the performers. The attention shouldn’t be on the person running the spotlight, it’s all about the person in the spotlight.
In conversation, listening is our “spotlight.”
When we are attentive, curious and acknowledge what we hear from our clients, we allow them to feel truly seen. When we draw that attention to ourselves, on the other hand, we steal the spotlight from them.
Just like in the theatre, when our focus is on anything other than our client, they fade into the darkness.
For most of us, we aren’t even aware that we are stealing the spotlight. It’s usually the result of something we’ve done with the best of intentions. We want to connect with the other person by sharing a similar experience of our own, or we want to reassure them we are knowledgeable and capable, or maybe there’s a misunderstanding of an important point that needs to be clarified.
Connecting back to Dale Carnegie, being interested rather than interesting keeps the spotlight on the other person.
Even with the best intentions, it’s hard to connect the right mindset to outcomes if we lack the skills. The basic skills for a client conversation are fairly simple:
Be prepared. Do some research (LinkedIn is a great resource) so you know a little bit about the person before you talk.
Slow down. Don’t be in a rush to prove yourself, or show how funny or likeable or smart you are: your turn will come.
Be curious. Don’t take everything the client says at face value; dig into the context to truly understand what their experience is.
Ask questions. Get them talking about themselves, their goals and challenges.
Just mastering the basics should qualify you as a good listener. And for many people that’s enough.
But if you want to be a “gold medal” listener, there’s one more skill to master. Finding, and sticking to, your Ideal Listening Percentage (ILP). Your ILP is how much time you ideally want to spend listening vs. talking.
Many participants suggest for new client/initial discussion they would like to Listen 80%/Talk 20%. (Note: for a 1 hour meeting 80% is 48 minutes of listening!) Most participants also admit they are hard-pressed to stick to their ILP.
You’ll likely find your ILP varies based on the type of conversation you’re having. Exploratory is definitely a higher ratio. Responding to a specific request may warrant a lower ratio.
Whatever the right ILP is for you and your circumstances, consider it before, during, and after your conversation.
If you are having a conversation with a client – consider your ILP.
If you are having a conversation with a member of your team – consider your ILP.
If you are having a conversation with a family member or friend – consider you ILP.
If you are meeting a client with other members of your team, make sure you all agree on the ILP for the meeting.
Don’t Steal the Spotlight
The biggest challenge to keeping the spotlight on the client is our own self-orientation. It requires self-awareness and intentionality. During your next conversation, dedicate some quality “spotlight time”:
- Get off your “S”.
- Shine the spotlight on your client.
- Know your ILP.
Be a “gold medal” listener.