This is one of a series of posts we’re running about the Collective Next Cards.
OK, people. This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned at work, and I learned it the hard way. I’m telling you here so you don’t have to go through what I went through. Please, people, listen.
Phrased that way, many of you are primed to actually listen. You can tell, I hope, that I’m being honest with you, that I have a lesson that I think might be useful to you, and I’m going to share some personal humiliation to prove my point. Your ears are up.
Not everyone makes that as easy as I’m trying to make it. Sometimes people need help communicating clearly and directly. Sometimes people you work with have so much trouble communicating clearly and directly that you’re tempted to do it for them.
Don’t do that. Here’s why.
Early in my career, I worked an an editor for a commercial online service. (We were #2 to AOL in that competition, but it was a distant #2. It was like like being the #2 professional golfer during Tiger Woods’ prime or, perhaps, the #2 presidential candidate to Vladimir Putin.) For a time, I had a boss who, to my mind, did an ineffective job of communicating what he wanted done or why. For months, we would have weekly meetings during which, again to my mind, he was unable to articulate what was necessary. He would start sentences and then be quiet for what seemed like long periods of time (30 seconds of silence in a 1:1 meeting can feel like a long time to someone – and these pauses were longer than that). After his pause, he’d go on to a new idea without finishing the previous one. After a while, I would wait a few seconds after he turned silent and start finishing his sentences.
This went on for three meetings. I felt good about how things were going. I was participating in developing strategy, I thought, and since I was the one verbalizing what I needed to do, I felt I was doing important things. And then, during one meeting, I stepped in during a break to finish one of my boss’s sentences, as usual, and he shouted, “Give me a damn second for once, will you?! I know what I want and I will get to what I need to get to!”
I was, at once, surprised, a little scared, and extremely embarrassed. I realized immediately how arrogant and presumptuous I had been. I was waiting for the pauses to arrive so I could insert what I wanted. I wasn’t helping. I was interrupting and I was disrespectful. He was having trouble verbalizing and I was exacerbating it. Most of all, I wasn’t listening, just waiting for my chance to show off.
If you’re in a leadership position, there’s a good chance that a big reason you’re there is because of what you say when it’s your turn to do the saying. Fine. We want leaders who know what they want and are able to share that and help others do it. But if you aspire to be a leader, you can’t interject yourself all the time. Unless you’re working for a one-person company and never have to deal with clients, contractors, suppliers, or other human beings, you’re never going to succeed if you’re more in love with the sound of your own voice, as I was, than what you might learn from others in the room. You may think you’re the smartest person in the room, and you might be (although you’re less likely to be the smartest person in the room if you think you are). But it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person in the room trying to add any value. Different people have different ways of speaking, so you have to develop different ways of listening. Just as a leader adapts her communications to the needs of her audience, a smart listener keeps in mind not only what someone else is saying but also what he is trying to say. Listening doesn’t only mean focusing on what people are saying. It also means recognizing what people are leaving out. If you pay attention, you can hear subtext as well as text. Then, when it’s your turn, you can add value.
I didn’t realize this right away when my long-ago boss scolded me. It’s been 19 years since then and I still cringe a bit at how I treated him. But listening is a skill you can develop with time and practice. I’m not always perfect. I still interrupt every now and then when I’m not listening hard enough. But when I listen before I open my mouth, I’m much more likely to succeed. You are, too.