A couple of years back I was working in an insurance company, interviewing the senior team in preparation for an off-site meeting on strategy. In advance of meeting the CEO, I asked the Marketing Director “What’s he like?” and received the memorable reply: “Whatever’s the opposite of Charisma, he has loads of it”. It turned out that the CEO was a terrible listener (other than listening to himself pontificating). While he was a very clever guy and tremendously hard working, his poor listening dialed everything back to zero. Oops!
Recent Outing: I was reminded of that story on a recent trip to St. Anne’s Golf Club (you can learn a lot of stuff when you are on the doss). Every now and then a visitor arrives at the club, unannounced, looking for a game. This guy, an American, was alone and I ended up playing alongside him. Now, normally, I enjoy being in the company of Americans. I worked directly for US multi-nationals for 12 years and have spent over 2 years either working or holidaying in various parts of the US. So, my pre-existing bias towards this guy was positive. It lasted about 11 minutes.
Ex Military: We were off to a good start. He was ex-military, a fighter pilot and I was looking forward to some great ‘war stories’. He kicked off the conversation about how everything in America was bigger/better than anywhere else in the world. This was somewhat expected, even amusing. He then went on to tell me, in excruciating detail, about his current employer (an airline) and how awful it was to work there. My patience started to run a tad low at that point. Next I was on the receiving end of a 25+ minute thesis on his ex-wife’s undiagnosed mental illnesses (knowing your sensitivity, I will spare your blushes on the actual terms used). And on. And on. And on. And on. And so on.
3+ Hours: Golf takes about 3 hours when there are 2 people in the group. By the end of that round I could have made a stab at writing this guys’ biography. I knew where he grew up and where he now lived, including the square footage of his house and yard. I knew his kid’s names and how successful they were. I knew his boss’s name and the names & occupations of several ‘great friends’ (perhaps he was a living example of the Oscar Wilde quip: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends”). I could practically draw a 3D representation of his home golf course in Colorado – such was the detailed description that he gave as we played each successive hole in St Anne’s (“This one seems a bit flat. Now our 3rd hole is beautiful. You should see it. It’s a dogleg left with water up the middle. You have to hit a perfect T-shot to put yourself in position. Colorado is the highest city in the US, so the air is thinner and the ball flies further. It’s such a great place really”).
At one point I was tempted to ask him how come he’d left such an idyllic place to holiday in a 3rd world country like Ireland, but it was actually hard to get a word in. Now, I’m normally nosey. I like talking to people and finding out what they do and what they’re up to. I don’t mind an element of moaning and don’t expect 50% of the available airtime. But this level of poor listening was off the Richter scale, monumentally annoying. If ‘not connecting’ was an Olympic sport, this guy would be a Gold Medalist. The Michael Phelps of talkers. It was a tough challenge to tolerate the 1-way monologue (3 hours+ is my new personal best; see if you can beat it).
Dart Station: As a final gesture of goodwill, I dropped him off at the Dart station in Raheny. He was heading back to a hotel in the city centre and it saved him from having to call a cab. As he was getting out of the car and thanking me for the ride, I held onto his hand for a couple of seconds longer than was absolutely necessary, looked at him directly and said: “By the way, my name is Paul Mooney”. He stared at me, a bit unsure about the handholding and the late introduction. I can only hope that the message registered – that there was another person there all afternoon – but wouldn’t bank on it.
In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott makes the point that success occurs one conversation at a time. Here’s how she puts it: “We resent being talked to. We’d rather be talked with. So will all of the experts and the terminally self-absorbed please leave the room and close the door behind you”. I doubt if my new BFF (Best Friend Forever) has read Susan’s book or, even if he did, whether he’d pick up on the core message (let’s hope he doesn’t read blogs or there might be a SCUD missile pointing at Clontarf as we speak!).
Learn to Listen: The only people who study listening in depth are therapists and counselors. Managers don’t ‘study’ this; we’re expected to know it, intuitively. So, the next time you find yourself hogging the conversation and being centre stage, just shut up and listen. When you listen you learn all sorts of amazing stuff. Like how well the organization is performing, what roadblocks are getting in the way and how these could be removed. And you can’t listen to people toiling away in the operation if you are sitting in your corner office on the top floor.
For most people the opposite of talking is not listening; it’s waiting (to talk). Now, get out there and practice great listening. And, remarkably, people will think that you are really interesting. It’s such a neat trick. Try it. Hey, sometimes I even do it myself!
PS Lighter Note:
I said to my wife: “Can you get me a newspaper?”
“Don ‘t be silly” she said. “You can borrow my new iPad Mini”
That f****** spider never knew what hit it.
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