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Listen Twice as Much as You Talk

"What does it take to be successful in the working world?" Here is the second out of four principles that form my answer to that great question the young Junior Achievement high school student asked me several years ago.

Principle #2 - Develop Excellent Listening and Empathy Skills.

Not meaning to channel Forrest Gump here, but Mama always said, "God gave you two ears and one mouth for a good reason. He meant for you to listen twice as much as you talk." Perhaps your mother said something similar to you. My work career and experience in successful relationships bears out the truth of this old saying.

Think about your relationships with friends, family and others you are close to in your life and how you feel when you interact with some of these folks and a single person dominates the conversation. He doesn't let you or anyone else participate - to "get one word in edgewise"! It's not a good feeling, is it? Contrast that with the positive experiences you've had when you talk with someone who truly listened to you, who respectfully heard you and sought to understand what you were saying - who seemed to really care about what you had to say. We all find this refreshing, engaging and attractive in that other person.

The world of work is no different. People operate in the business environment much the same as they do in the personal environment and what they find attractive and engaging personally will be similar in a business setting. Doesn't this make logical sense? And if people are attracted to you and want to engage with you in the business environment, this will help you drive your success in the working world - this is irrefutable.

Some people have developed strong listening skills naturally, or maybe it's an innate ability they have been blessed with. What about the rest of us (I include myself here!) who don't come by this naturally? What do we do? Well, I know improvement can be accomplished, but it's not easy. It's a skill you have to develop - you have to commit to becoming a better listener and then work at it. Here are steps I've taken to improve in this area over the past couple of decades:

  • Mama was right - listen twice as much as you speak. Become self-aware. Take note of how much you speak or dominate conversations and interactions compared to others. Ask those closest to you for feedback: "Do you think I'm a good listener? Why or why not?" Make the adjustments that are necessary - this will require willpower and commitment.

  • Become skilled at asking open-ended questions. This means asking questions that can't be answered with a simple "Yes", or "No". Examples:

  1. Why do you feel that way?
  2. What makes you say that?
  3. Help me understand what you're saying.
  4. How does that work?

Be aware that some people you interact with are skilled at giving monosyllabic answers even to your most open-ended questions. Example: 

Dad to Teenaged Son: "How was your school day?"  
Son to Dad: "Good."  
Dad: "What was good about it?"  
Son: "Lunch."  
Dad: "Please describe this good lunch for me"
Son: "I can't remember."
Dad: "What are your thoughts about the current sovereign debt struggles in the Euro-Zone?"
Son: "Huh?"

Etc., Etc. The point is to persevere and ask multiple open-ended questions as you seek to get others to communicate while you talk less and listen more!

  • Confirm that you've understood what the other person has said: "What I hear you saying is....", "I think what you mean is..........is that correct?"

  • Never argue with another person's feelings. They feel the way they feel and you can't judge or change the rightness or wrongness of another person's feelings. By the way, this one comes from almost 30 years of successful marriage - a great training ground for building strong listening skills!

I must also encourage you to add empathy for the other person into your listening. By this, I mean giving your full attention to the person you are listening to (Phone is set aside, TV is turned off, Sports page of the paper is folded and put away or Book is closed). You may hear this referred to as "active listening" - you are concentrating intensely on what the other person has to say and seeking to understand it (this is where confirmation of your comprehension comes in so handy: "What I hear you saying is..."). And you're not thinking ahead on how to answer this person or solve their problem - focus on them, not your next "chess move". Here's a good aphorism to remember about this principle:

"People don't care about how much you know, until they know how much you care."

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