Years ago, there was a radio program hosted by Paul Harvey, which consisted of stories on a variety of subjects, presented first as facts.
A key element of each story was held back until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with the tag line “And now you know the rest of the story.”
Getting the whole story is critical. Over the years I’ve learned how important it is to know the rest of the story. Interacting with my children. Collaborating with partners. Consulting with clients. Real motivations for meaningful discussions are often deeper than you first hear.
Discovering these insights requires both the art and talent of active listening. It is essential for better decisions, better relationships, and better results.
A couple of years ago, an associate and I were having a discussion with a potential client and his wife about their long term financial planning. They started off the discussion focused on what specific strategies they should use to organize their money, assets and business so there would not be any confusion at death.
By taking the time to really listen and ask pertinent questions, we discovered their real concerns:
- Stressful decisions about which son or daughter could or wanted to carry on the business
- Being fair to each child
- Anxiety about personal conflict among their children
- Spousal influence on their children’s attitude
Active listening is different than hearing. When people are talking to us, we all have a tendency to jump to solutions or opinions based on our experience, knowledge and first perceptions versus taking time for real understanding.
Solving situations based on first perceptions may cost us. We could wind up spending more time, more energy and more money on solving the wrong problem, or providing the wrong advice.
There is science behind our eagerness to respond. Sarah Green, senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review, in a recent article, referenced that the challenge with listening is we think faster than we talk. We speak at about 125 words per minute, but the neurons in our brain are firing up a storm about 200 times a second.
Too often this means our brains are already trying to process a solution or rebuttal to a question a client or friend asks before they have even finished speaking.
The art of listening is caring, being empathetic. To be a good listener I believe you have to be authentic, have a natural curiosity and care for other people.
I recently attended a private study group in Toronto by Dan Solin, the New York Times bestselling author of the Smartest series of books. In one of his insightful blogs he lists some common causes of a lack of empathetic listening:
- Not considering the feelings of the other person
- A desire to fix problems, rather than genuinely listening and hearing what is being said (Any husband ever been told that?)
The talent of listening is asking great questions. John Maxwell, in his book ‘Good Leaders ask Great Questions’ says that before a meeting he asks himself, ‘What do I need to know?’, and then later on ‘What am I missing?’
An associate in the communication profession makes it a practice to ask insightful questions about the importance of something or the reasons for doing it, at least three times. (Six Sigma recommends asking ‘why?‘ five times).
In every conversation with a client, my team is encouraged to take time:
- To discover the real motivations to a client’s questions
- To genuinely listen – not to interrupt or jump to conclusions
- To understand and ask insightful questions
I challenge you in your next conversation with family, colleagues, or clients, to really listen – to get the rest of the story. Ask yourself; “Am I listening to answer or listening to understand?”