Asking isn’t always about getting something you need or want – it’s an integral component of any meaningful conversation. And meaningful conversations are one of life’s most satisfying and fulfilling social interactions. They enable us to establish relationships, achieve business success, and expand our horizons.
Each person we come in contact with is wearing an invisible sign around his or her neck that says, “Make me feel important.” Asking questions is a simple and surefire way to accomplish this. Think of times when you were talking with someone and they never once asked you a question – or paid no attention to your answers. How did that make you feel?
I know from feedback from clients that making them feel important is critical to the success of our coaching relationship. I take the approach that the other person always has something of value to contribute. By showing an interest and inviting others to express themselves, I’ve made them feel important.
But asking is just half of the equation: listening is the other half. Listening – not just hearing, but actively listening – is one of the keys to understanding. People often hear without listening, but it’s the art of focused listening that truly pays high dividends.
Former president Richard M. Nixon is famous for saying, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not so sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Amusing as this is, it shines a spotlight on the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is merely a physical ability. Listening is a skill that allows us to understand what someone is saying.
I recently hit redial on my phone, and when the receptionist answered I said, “Oops. Sorry, I dialed the wrong number.” She replied, “That’s okay. May I ask who is calling?” I’m sure she was listening, but she clearly hadn’t heard or understood what I said.
Think about how your ears perk up when someone starts talking about issues that affect your money or your health: “Fixing my car will cost me how much?” or “You want to remove my what?”
We need to bring this focused attention to our everyday listening practice. One sure-fire approach I recommend to my clients is this: There is something interesting about every person you speak with, and it’s your job to find out what that is.
Here are a few of my favorite tips for improving your listening skills:
Listening is to asking what “thank you” is to “please” or a toothbrush is to toothpaste. They can be used separately, but when combined they are infinitely more effective.