I learned a great lesson from an extremely smart executive when I was starting my career in consulting. It boiled down to “shut up and listen.” The following excerpt from my book, One Piece of Paper, relates the story and I’ve offered a few lessons you can draw from my stupidity.
Speaking of listening, I’m excited to announce that One Piece of Paper is now available as an audiobook from Audible.com! Now instead of reading it you can simply listen to it. You can even get it for a huge discount! Click on over to Audible to learn more and download your copy now. Now onto the story…
As with all my maxims, both of these have personal stories behind them. This maxim was taught to me by the partner in charge of a consulting project I was assigned to. He was my boss’ boss.
We were at dinner with the senior leadership team from a new and important client. This was one of my first consulting projects and I wanted to make a good impression. I was still a little insecure in my role and my abilities as a consultant. I felt a strong need to impress the client executives.
As we ate, the clients asked me about my background. When I started telling army stories they expressed a genuine interest. The more interested they got, the more stories I told. By the time we finished eating they had heard about all my military exploits.
After dinner, the consulting partner running the project asked me how I thought dinner went. I said it was a wonderful meal and the clients seemed like fantastic people. Of course I would think that – they politely sat there and listened to my life’s story. The partner then asked me what I learned about the client over the course of the meal. I paused and thought hard but I was unable to come up with anything meaningful as a reply. “Mike, I’m glad you had a good time at dinner. Here’s a little feedback for you along with something you might find helpful going forward – you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” My problem was painfully clear after he said this.
“We’re here to help the client get better. The only way we can do that is if we understand them and what’s on their minds. If you listen twice as much as you talk, you have a much better chance of understanding them than if you do twice the talking and half the listening.” Ouch. The truth can sting but learning from it helps the pain go away.
From that day forward that statement was one of my maxims. I adopted it as a reminder that to understand people you have to listen to them. The maxim reminds me to ask more questions than I answer. When I find I am suffering from a case of motor-mouth I try to use this maxim to get myself to shut up and listen.
I will admit I am not always successful. I am a pretty loquacious guy and there is a reason I am a speaker for a living. Given those biases, this maxim is even more important to me than it would be to someone who is naturally introverted. When I remember to apply this maxim I find I learn a great deal about people and what is important to them. When they are listened to they feel valued. The act of listening tells them I am interested in their stories, backgrounds, problems, and perspectives. In short, they feel like they matter.
So what has your experience been with balancing listening and talking? How do you remind yourself to stay tuned into what your conversation partner is saying? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
- If you want to learn how to create your own set of leadership maxims that ensure you behave the right way in any situation, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at Audible.com.