Decades ago, when a friend of mine and I were both young and ill-educated about the ways of the world, he said, "Betty, this is why guys and girls are so different. When guys have a problem, they want to hear solutions. When girls have a problem, all they want to do is have you listen to them on and on and they don't want to hear solutions."
He was both right and wrong. Wrong in his overall gender assumptions, but right in one very critical way: Most people just want you to listen to them.
As the years went on, I learned just how important this skill is in life. It became immensely important in my job in television. Being a great interviewer is not just about asking the brilliant question but also being able to shut up and listen to the answer. Early on, I was so nervous about live interviews that I would make the rookie mistake of being solely focused on my next question, so that the current answer sometimes went in one ear and out the other. During one particularly pointed answer, I completely missed an opening to ask a follow-up that might have broken some news. Needless to say, that was the last time I ever made that mistake.
But more important than pulling off a great television interview is knowing this: Listening will help you in almost every aspect of your life. It will make you a better leader, a better conversationalist, a better spouse, a better sales executive, and it will instantly make you more likable and the most popular person at a party.
Jim Reynolds, the CEO of Loop Capital, a boutique bank based in Chicago, really drove this point home to me years ago. When Reynolds first started out in the sales training program at IBM, one of the biggest things he learned was to make sure you listen to your customer.
"Most people will tell you what they want," Reynolds says. "All you have to do is pay attention and listen to it. Then, you give them exactly what they asked for. The guys who made the big sales were never the ones who walked in with flashy suits and big mouths--it was always the ones who shut up and listened who made the big sales."
So how do you listen well? I find these three things go a long way in connecting with people:
1. Mirror people's words. It sounds counterintuitive, because repeating other people's words back to them makes it seem as if you're not paying attention to them. But I can't tell you how many times I've seen people's eyes light up when you repeat their words back to them, as in: "This app is going to revolutionize the way people order local chickens from the farm," to which you would say, "This is going to revolutionize the way people order local chickens from the farm? How?" to which the person would reply, "Yes! So glad you asked...." You've made an instant friend.
2. Ask questions. How many conversations have you been in where someone says something completely nonsensical and you just let it pass because it's actually more work to make them explain their point than to let him or her talk on. Next time, make a point to stop the conversation and ask about the point of confusion. It will not only create a more dynamic connection, it will also signal to the person that you're actually listening. Chances are, when you're stuck with someone who's talking endlessly, even he or she knows you're not completely paying attention.
3. Stop looking around the room. One of the things I love about live television interviews is the intensity of it--two people are literally staring at each other for five minutes straight talking, sometimes tensely. The problem is, in real life, nobody talks to each other that way. Most of us are half engaged in our conversations, thinking about what we want to eat, our dinner plans, or the work on our desk. At cocktail parties, many of us find ourselves looking over the shoulder of the person in front of us to see who's around. To which I say, stop. Stop looking around the room physically or looking around the room in your brain. Five minutes spent fully engaging with one person as if he or she is the only thing in the room at the moment is worth 10 times more than 15 minutes half-heartedly tittering on about the dullest subjects.
Try these three techniques and soon you'll find yourself the life of the party, without having to don a toga.