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.
The SPOTLIGHT Test
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
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:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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
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 https://GrowStrongLeaders.com.