One of the first crucial lessons I learned when I first went into business at the ripe old age of sixteen was how to listen. This was due to the fact that all of my business dealings happened on the phone since my ‘office’ was in fact my bedroom in my parents’ house. I was extremely careful about not sounding young and inexperienced, so to compensate for that, I was diligent about hanging on every word that was spoken to me. Through that, I learned the importance of attentively listening.
As a result, I received many accolades as people felt like I truly heard them through our business exchanges. This led me to another critical lesson about the art of business – when you boil everything down, it’s all about relationships. And relationships cannot grow and prosper if you are unable to properly listen and deliver.
I’m definitely fortunate to have had such a unique experience being brought up in the business world at such a young age. I didn’t realize this then but basically if I wanted to succeed, I had to develop impeccable listening skills or else I would have never been able to build the type of trust with others that I have over the years.
I’ve always tried to create a working environment where people feel heard, and the only way to do that is to make sure they are heard. And this doesn’t just apply to business. I think that in life, in general, we could all use a little reminder from time-to-time on the importance of attentively listening to one another.
First impressions are crucial in relationship building. The first thing I do when I’m introduced to someone new is to make eye contact. Sure, sounds pretty simple, but you’d be amazed at how many people fail to do this simple thing upon first meeting. You want the person sitting across from you not to feel like they’re staring into some abyss – but that you’re totally present in the conversation.
Body language is another obvious piece. If you’re fidgeting, glancing at your computer, or checking your phone –you’re clearly not listening. If you’re not engaging, what’s the point?
We don’t like to admit this but most of the time, when someone is talking, we tend to begin formulating our responses before they’re finished. If you’re constantly thinking about your response before the person speaking to you isn’t even done with their thought, you’re not engaged – and you’re not listening.
Sometimes it’s nice to be the person who doesn’t dominate the conversation.
Another piece to be mindful of is interrupting people. Sure, we all do it from time to time, and while it’s usually not meant to be disrespectful by any means – it can be viewed as rude and counter-productive in an exchange. When you interrupt, or when you plunge in too quickly to make yourself heard, you are behaving impatiently. And if you’re impatient with the wrong person, the right idea might slip through your fingers.
After you’ve heard someone out, it’s always a good idea to briefly review the main points to make sure you understood everything correctly. This was something I was lucky enough to learn as a teenager, and it continues to serve me well to this day.
Some simple phrases might help in this regard. “What I hear you saying is…” Or, “Let me make sure I got this right…” You are validating and restating the message by paraphrasing what you’ve heard, and in so doing you’ve clarified the message for both the speaker and yourself. By reflecting back what you’ve heard, you are able to demonstrate that you really have been engaged. In addition – and this is a big plus – you have eliminated the possibility of misunderstandings.
If you learn how to listen reflectively, people are more likely to come to you with their ideas.
After you’ve heard someone out, make sure you respond in a non-judgmental way. If you have questions, and clearly you will, don’t put the person on the spot. Being kind and receptive is empowering for the person you’re engaging with – always try to lean on this mindset. To criticize a bad idea is counter-productive. Even if you don’t respond to an idea, show respect by valuing that person’s opinion.
Judgmental thinking is entrenched thinking. Instead of judging them, judge yourself: An idea might not strike you immediately, but if you give it time, and a little thought, it could surprise you. Sometimes the ideas you dismiss out of hand are the ones that end up being real life-changers. A week later you suddenly understand what the person meant, and suddenly you see the idea in a whole new light. As Steve Jobs pointed out in his book, some of the greatest innovation Apple created came from his reflection that changed multiple industries forever.
Create the Right Work Environment
Every time I start a new business, I do my best to create an environment where all the employees feel heard, and the only way to do that – as I said earlier – is to make sure theyare heard. That’s why my door is always open to everyone in the company. I run the place, and the final decisions rest with me, and perhaps at times I’m a bit of a dictator – but I’d like to think I’m a benevolent dictator. If people are afraid of the boss, the boss is doing something wrong. His employees are his best asset, and he is squandering them.
At the end of the day, listening really is an art form. It validates your employees. It makes them feel good about working in an environment where their voices are heard. And it fuels creativity. The job of a CEO is to listen, evaluate, and act on good ideas. And he can only do that by letting everyone know that he or she is open to their ideas. After all, good ideas is what it’s all about. If you’re not listening for them, someone else is.
There’s an old saying: Lead by listening. I believe that with all my heart. If I had to sum it up in a phrase, it would be a simple one: Leaders aren’t born, they are created – when they understand art and listen for it in every form.
Photo: Courtesy of Rosenberg Photography