top of page

THIS Can Cost You Customers, Employees or Even Friends

People will generally overlook small faults or idiosyncrasies in others. But this one

thing can be a deal-breaker in your relationships.

Many years ago, I was finishing up my third year of teaching 4th grade at an

elementary school in Blacksburg, Virginia. While I’d enjoyed those three years, I was

ready for a change. I’m the kind of person who thrives on variety and challenges.

But my principal didn’t want to reassign me to a different position. He was eager to keep

me where I was because I was doing a good job. So when he refused my request, I

decided to apply for an opening that came up at another school.

I was actually serious about making the transfer, until I had an interview with that

school’s principal. Although the meeting took place 40 years ago, I remember to this day

the reason I withdrew my application.

It had everything to do with the way he LISTENED – or more accurately, the way he did NOT listen.

We met for close to an hour, and I think I spoke a total of five minutes during that time.

It was fascinating at first to hear him describe specifics about his school and the faculty.

But then he began “holding forth” about himself and all the things he’d done.

At no time did he try to learn about my teaching style, my attitude towards children, or

anything else that might have helped him make an informed decision about my

suitability for the position.

Instead, at the end of our time together, he looked at me and said, “I think you’re the

kind of person who’d fit right in here. The job is yours if you want it.”

I was flabbergasted.

He hadn’t spoken to my current principal, and he hadn’t asked me any questions.

I’ll never forget the thoughts that ran through my mind at that moment: How could you

possibly know if I’d fit in? You haven’t made any effort to get to know me at all! 

I politely told him I’d think about it and get back to him, but I already knew what my

answer would be.

His behavior during that interview foreshadowed what life would be like at that school.

There was no way that I would work for someone who was so self-absorbed.

Since then, I’ve encountered scores of people – many of them in key leadership

positions – who share this principal’s habit.

They’re focused on talking about themselves and their accomplishments. They don’t

seem to consider that those around them might have something meaningful to say. They

don’t understand that, by listening, they can learn from others and validate their own worth.

Today I consider this habit a measure of a person’s ego and self-awareness.

The more you’re willing to let others have the floor and listen with genuine interest to

what they're saying, the more comfortable you probably are with yourself. And the less

you feel the need to dominate discussions.

A KEY benefit: You’re more likely to acquire important information and gain insights

you didn’t have before.


When you’re in a conversation with others – whether individually or in a group –

imagine that there’s a spotlight shining down on the person who is speaking.

Consciously monitor the percentage of time the spotlight is focused on you compared to

the others.

If you’re in the spotlight most of the time, it’s a good bet that the people you’re talking to

are experiencing a mix of frustration and disappointment. Like me in that interview,

they’re probably wishing you’d stop talking long enough to take an interest in them.

Not only that, if you don’t listen, how will you know what your customer really wants?

Or what a colleague thinks will work on a specific project?

Or what your child needs from you right now?

In case you need further convincing, simply monitor your own reaction when you’re

engaged in a conversation with someone who’s preoccupied with delivering their own

message and seems to have no interest in what you have to say. I predict your thoughts

and feelings won’t be positive.

Tips for Optimum Listening

Don’t interrupt. Listening is about the other person, not you. Interrupting to

offer your own input will make it hard for them to complete their thought. Also, it

implies that what you have to say is more important than what they have to say.

Remember: your job is to understand, so the other person should be doing most

of the talking.

Be patient. It may be as hard for the speaker to explain what’s on their mind as

it is for you to grasp the explanation. It’s a rare individual who gets straight to the


Don’t offer your experience, advice or solutions. When someone comes to

you about an issue, you might be tempted to resolve it for them. You may have

more experience and know-how. You may sense that the solution they come up

with might not work, and you’ll be tempted to suggest a better approach. Giving

advice and offering solutions can inhibit people from thinking creatively about

options. Unless their solution has grave consequences, consider giving the person

the opportunity to take responsibility for their work and learn from mistakes.

Keep the goal in mind. Listening to understand is one of those skills, like

chess or tennis, that you can continue to improve indefinitely. The better you get

at it, the more people will open up to you, because they’ll feel they’ve been heard,

understood, and respected. Their self-esteem and the bond between you will grow


Whether you’re at home or at work, when you take time to let others do the talking and

you focus exclusively on understanding them and making them feel understood, you

will be utterly amazed at the transformation that takes place in your relationships.

Every human being has a deep need to be accepted and understood. If you fulfill that

need, you’ll form an unbreakable bond that can last a lifetime.

Want to learn more? Check out our podcast:


Meredith Bell is co-founder and President of Performance Support Systems (PSS). Her

company publishes books and software tools that helps companies grow strong leaders

and teams by improving the way they connect with each other. Meredith is host of the

popular Strong for Performance podcast and co-author of two books, Connect with Your

Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple, with her business partner, Dr. Dennis Coates.

In them, Meredith and Denny provide step-by-step guides for improving

communication skills and serving as a peer coach to someone else. Get details about the

books and products at

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page