Laryngitis left me with no voice. And the timing was horrible as I was in the middle of an important week of meetings with key customers and influencers. Try as I did, my feeble voice couldn't break through.
With no choice but to shut up, it was time to be schooled in active listening. With no time spent worrying about what to say next, what clever quip to interject, I was able to soak up the conversation of others—to luxuriate in listening.
Too often in business, conversation becomes a race to get all of our points in before someone else can. Trampling over others to make sure our voice is loudest, our words last to be lasting.
Unfortunately, and too often, the art of listening gets lost when you need it most – when faced with bad news or too many distractions. My pet peeve is the lost opportunity of a sales call, mine included!) Maybe you've been here too: "We want to understand all about you, but first, a brief introduction about ourselves." Fifty minutes later they're still waxing on about their offerings. And then with ten minutes left, they turn to you saying, "But we need to hear from you." You try to beat the clock, speaking faster than any human can comprehend. Connection lost, opportunities missed.
"Listening is the most critical business skill of all," says Bernie Ferrari, John Hopkins B-school dean and author of Power Listening. "The difference between great and mediocre business leaders is the ability to listen."
You mean we have to stop to listen? I'm a world-class multi-tasker but I grudgingly admit that I'm a more effective listener when focused.
Bernie asserts that you make better decisions when you listen well because you're taking in new ideas and honing your critical thinking skills. The best listening comes about by keeping quiet most of the time and asking probing questions when you do engage. I've been on the receiving end of those questions from Bernie as a consultant. When done well, they show not only that you were heard but give you an opportunity to be more thoughtful in return, even to learn.
In my week of voiceless exile, I was reminded how my voiced self often interrupts before the other person can finish the thought. Curiosity is what propels me to interject, but that can be distracting. I also realized how many times I rush to cover too many topics in one conversation, like there's a jackpot at the end. Or that I think I've heard someone's words, but wasn't paying close enough attention to consider the thought.
My lesson: Soaking up a conversation shouldn't be a luxury. Stop, listen, ask.