What is it that separates those who excel at their chosen profession from the rest of the field? Is it genes? Do the discipline, skills and attitude of a successful person just happen, or does it take mentoring from the right people to bring out the best in a talented individual? There isn't one answer. One thing that I have always stressed is effort. A successful person given a project, assignment or challenge does the hard things that are necessary to get it done. But even the most skilled, dedicated workers need something else to become truly successful, a secret ingredient if you will.
One answer to these questions is provided in a book I picked up not long ago by an organizational change consultant, Rick Maurer. Why Don't You Want What I Want? (Bard Press, 2002) presents a thesis that I find quite credible. The subtitle explains it best: How to Win Support for Your Ideas Without Hard Sell, Manipulation or Power Plays.
Most books about dealmaking fail to emphasize the softer side of getting things done. But Maurer does present some very convincing evidence that learning how to listen effectively is a big key to success.
Maurer, an organizational change consultant, uses the reflections of actors and other professional communicators to make his points. For instance, he quotes actor and director Andre Gregory (of "My Dinner With Andre" fame), who admits his listening skills aren't all they should be. "In life, I'm a great listener. When I'm acting, I'm a very bad listener because I'm always so worried about my next response, or my cue," Gregory said. Maurer writes that we are all actors in that way, because we are thinking so hard about our next comment when talking with others that it inhibits us from listening to the other person.
Actor Alan Alda told Maurer his theory on paying attention. "Listening is being able to be changed by the other person. Not hearing them, not waiting for your cue, not waiting for them to stop so I can talk. It's letting them in."
To many in the business world such an attitude might suggest a willingness to be pushed around during negotiations. But Maurer counters that impression, saying, "Listening with a willingness to be changed does not suggest that we roll over and give in. However, it does suggest that we hold the I and you in equal regard. I keep my idea in mind while, at the same time, I take in what you have to say in a way that allows me to be influenced."
Maurer describes what he calls the "leaning in and leaning away dances" people perform while in conversation. He writes that if you pay attention to how the other person is either leaning toward you or away from you while you are talking, you get a pretty good indication as to whether the person is interested in what you have to say. He suggests that in his experience those individuals who are most successful in presenting their ideas are able to read these tiny signals moment to moment.
How many times when you have been at a social or business gathering and been talking to someone and after an initial period of pretending to listen, the person signals someone else and simply walks away? What a repudiation that is-a blatant statement that someone has no interest in you or your ideas and is insensitive to your feelings. The temptation is to say, "Well, there is someone I won't be giving the time of day to from now on." But Maurer says this is an opportunity to work on your communication skills. "It is common to pay attention to just a limited part of what is occurring between another person and ourselves. We need to pay attention to more than just words; we need to be attentive to their emotional reactions and issues of trust as well."
To guide you in such situations, Maurer lists several "signals that you're not paying attention in the moment." These include:
* You're paying more attention to making your point than you are to what's occurring between you.
* You're preparing arguments or counterpoints while the other person is talking.
* You're already anticipating the meeting's outcome.
* You're distracted by something else.
* You're already plotting what you will do after the meeting is over.
* You're judging your own performance and allowing that to distract you.
I believe you can get a pretty good idea how well someone is listening to you if you watch his or her body language. How they position their body is important. Is one foot already angled away from you? Do they make and keep eye contact? Are they scanning the horizon for someone more interesting? Those are the kinds of things that can be a good clue on how well someone is taking in what you have to say.
Communication should be a two-way street and energy should flow back and forth the whole time. As someone talks, someone else listens and both people are attuned to how the other is reacting to what is being said and how the other person is listening. If everyone paid this much attention to conversations, the world would be a better place.
Because that doesn't always happen, we have to work hard on listening and being heard. In the business world this is one of the most important skill sets to acquire, one of the things you can't do without if you want to be truly successful.
Stay tuned in,