As I get older I find my business style becoming quieter. And I find it is helping me as an entrepreneur and a salesman and a father.
Take the latter role, for example. I read with and talk with my daughter almost every night, when I am in town, before she goes to sleep. I used to try to guide her by talking to her about values or little lessons I felt I had to impart. I don’t do that so much any more. I’ve learned how to listen to her, really listen, till she asks me about something. Then we have real talk. This process has helped me as a businessman and a servant of my clients.
Listening is a critical business skill. (One thing that bothers me about social media is that it often seems to revolve around aggressive strategies of pushing out tweets, emails, links, etc., but not of meaningful dialogue.) Yet who has not heard the 80/20 rule of sales–that you should be listening the larger percentage and talking the smaller.
Listening is about discovery. My process of becoming a better listener and a better collegial entrepreneur has been one of giving up my preconceptions, my ego, my wish to control, and, above all, my personal neediness. To react as more of a human tabula rasa, not a sales creature waiting to jump in and impress, and to let go the effort of trying to read what people think of me. In a sense this involves giving up and emptying myself before business or sales conversations. What other people think of me is none of my business.
This does not mean that effective listening is a passive process. It is active, concentrated, focused, purposeful. There is certainly a pressure, as a leader, to steer, control, and direct–to present a forceful image of being in charge. But I have not found that entrepreneurial leadership requires hegemonic assertion.
So how do we become more effective executive listeners?
Well, I’ve just started reading a new book by Bernard Ferrari, an ex-McKinsey director, called Power Listening: Mastering The Most Critical Business Skill Of Them All (Portfolio Penguin). Ferrari feels that all of us are flawed listeners to one extent or another. In Chapter Two he lists six types of listeners.
- The Opinionator-listens only to determine if his ideas agree with what the opinionator knows to be true. He uses sentences that begin with “Listen,…” and ends with the word “right?”
- The Grouch-is blocked from dialogue by the certainty that your ideas are flawed.
- The Preambler-uses long-winded questions which are really stealth speeches to box colleagues into a corner.
- The Peseverator-seems to dialogue, but is only trying to sharpen his point and categorize you as a supporter.
- The Answer Man-the smartest man in the room interested in impressing and always having the answer.
- The Pretender-he’s a great actor, but could care less.
I must admit to have at least touched on most of these in my seventeen years as leader of my company, more’s the pity.
I haven’t got to Ferrari’s conclusions yet, but for me the answer to effective listening is simply to really care about my client, my employee, or my partner. It’s not always easy to do, but for me it is the Polar Star of determining if I’m present. It’s a good place to keep coming back to in any meaningful business conversation.
Betsy Sanders, a former Sr. VP at Nordstrom, once said, “To learn through listening, practice it naively and actively. Naively means that you listen openly, ready to learn something, as opposed to listening defensively, ready to rebut.”
Thank you, Betsy