Early in my coaching career, I worked my first two years for another fellow, named Frank, who had established a vibrant coaching practice. He was an excellent salesman and exuded an air of executive gravitas that was fitting with his experience – and his shock of silver hair.
He told me a very interesting story of a sales call he made, based upon a referral, to a very senior executive of a major Chicago-based company. The fellow’s assistant made it clear that he could only spare 30 minutes, and although Frank liked closer to an hour to connect with a prospective client, he took what he could get.
The executive came out from behind his desk in his elegant office and sat face-to-face with Frank in a small sitting area. The fellow gave Frank his rapt attention and asked several insightful questions along the way.
At the 25 minute mark, his assistant knocked and reminded him he needed to leave in 5 minutes. Frank wrapped up his pitch and, like any good salesman, asked for the order. The executive very politely and firmly explained why Frank’s services were not a fit for his company and brought the meeting to a close. Frank asked where he was off to, and the executive let him know he was giving an important presentation to a major Chicago civic group – in one hour!
Frank told me this story because it was such an excellent example of someone demonstrating active listening with a complete focus on the person speaking. Frank described it as the most impressive “No” he ever got.
It would have been very understandable how this fellow could have been impatient, distracted, or disinterested. It’s the rare person that can provide such a level of focus, but the most successful people have this ability to show interest, ask questions, and listen to the answers without distraction.
I have a friend who was a classmate of Hillary Clinton’s in grade school and high school. Although she is a die-hard Republican, she has said that Bill Clinton has this unique skill – he listens like you are the only person in the room – often in a throng of others.
In my work with my coaching clients, I use an online assessment that provides insight into Listening Styles. It breaks the listening process into two areas – a focus on feelings and a focus on information. Let me describe each:
- Appreciative Listening: To relax and enjoy the listening experience
- Empathic Listening: To support and understand the emotions of others
- Discerning Listening: To gather complete and accurate information
- Comprehensive Listening: To organize information and understand the meaning of the message
- Evaluative Listening: To critique information and make a decision
With my clients, I always stress how important the skill of listening is to their effectiveness as a leader. Although all five of these listening elements are very important, knowing when to stress one over another reflects the wisdom of experience.
- For instance, if someone is “un-loading” about a situation that did not go as planned, go heavy on the empathy until you know it’s time to help them rethink the issue.
- When someone seems to be missing the bigger picture or discounting certain variables, drill down more on comprehensive listening to better understand the situation, and provide more effective guidance.
- One of the biggest concerns I hear is how some leaders jump into evaluative listening too early – sometimes others want us to be a sounding board so they can develop their own answers.
The reality is that listening is a very complex process and a key trait of the very best listeners is the patience to listen deeply and completely and project a true connection with others.
My friend who was a childhood friend of Hillary Clinton said that Bill makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world to him when he chats with you. Less than 5% of the population has those unique skills.
Marshall Goldsmith refers to listening as “The Skill That Separates”. In an article he wrote, he mentioned a simple exercise that tests his clients’ listening skills.
Close your eyes. Count slowly to 50 with one simple goal: You can’t let another thought intrude on your mind. You must concentrate on maintaining the count.
Goldsmith said that more than 50 percent of his clients could not do this. It’s not a matter of concentration, but of listening to yourself. Like any skill, you can get better at this with time.
- Can I really focus on the speaker, ask good, insightful questions, and make them feel like they are the most important person to me while we chat?
- Will I try to conquer the “Count to 50” exercise until I can do it consistently?
- Although many of us are good at the Information Orientation of listening, can I show appreciative and empathic listening as well?
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.
Photo Credit: freegrace.us