The Only Manager Trick You’ll Ever Need: Listening
Can I let you in on a little secret? It’s a doozy, so lean in.
You have a trick up your sleeve that you can use to radically improve your relationships with not just your employees and clients but your family and friends as well. It doesn’t require any special training or tools, and in fact, many of its master-level users haven’t even graduated from high school.
Are you listening? Because that’s the secret.
Hear me out. (Get it? It’s a listening joke!)
Listening might be the most important tool you’ll find here at HowToBusiness.com. Why? Because if you can master this one piece of advice and ignore the rest, you’ll get further than if you master everything except this one.
Why is listening such a big deal?
If you can develop a good ear for listening, it will become the most powerful tool in your arsenal — even more powerful than your giant, flaming sword. Think Sauron with the ring. Thor with the hammer. Moira with a new wig and a starring role. Why so powerful? Because you’ll be one of the only people around who can actually do it well.
Think about it: As a business leader, you have seemingly limitless choices for classes in “communicating,” but when you get to the descriptions, they only cover one thing: speaking. You can attend webinars all day long about speaking to customers, speaking on podcasts, speaking for TED talks, speaking for video, or whatever other kind of speaking you need to master.
But there’s no “5 Day Master Class on Listening” or podcast titled “Want to sell more? Stop talking!” In fact, if listening is even brought up, it’s mostly as a form of martial arts where you’re not really listening; you’re waiting quietly for the perfect moment to unleash that master sales attack that will bring them to their knees.
This isn’t really surprising if we’re honest — a lot of businesspeople really like hearing themselves talk, after all — but masterful listening is a do-not-pass-go kind of skill that will change your life in ways that you can’t even imagine.
Don’t believe me? Ask any therapist on the planet.
The number of people seeking out therapists has skyrocketed, especially over the past few years. In a recent New York Times article, MDLive, a telehealth provider, reported that its member database had grown 500% since 2019 to include 62 million Americans.
And what are therapists if not professional listeners? People crave being listened to. They want it so badly, and find it so infrequently, that they’ll pay someone serious money to get it.
Here’s where the secret comes in. It doesn’t take a four-year degree or grad school to learn how to listen. In fact, you’re doing it. Right here, right now.
Nerdy brain science ahead
Your brain has two channels for receiving information: one for words and another for images. When they work in concert, you talk about the stars while you’re looking at them and nothing gets lost.
On the other hand, you cannot listen to the radio and read a book at the same time, because the words channel recognizes all language as the same, whether you hear the words, read them or even just think them.
And only one source can use the channel at a time. If multiple inputs use the same channel, you get nothing but noise. That’s why if you watch TV while you’re scrolling through social media, you don’t get 50% of each, you get 0% of both. (Think about the last time you had to rewind a show because you were on your phone and missed a major plot point.)
It’s also why you instinctively turn down the radio when you’re looking for street signs.
This is the key issue with listening. When someone is talking and you start thinking about what you’ll say in response before they’re finished, you stop being able to hear the person speaking. Everything just turns into noise.
This doesn’t bite us in the ass as often as it sounds like it should for two reasons. One, what many people say is predictable. If someone is complaining that their food is cold, it’s understandable within the first five words (even if they keep talking for another 50). If you’re a restaurant server in this scenario, you already have a programmed response: “I’m so sorry. We’ll fix that right away.” That’s going to be accurate 99% of the time.
And the other 1%? Well, so many people are so good at not listening that even if you reply with a completely inaccurate response, they don’t even notice. (When’s the last time someone said, “Have a nice day” and you were so distracted, you said, “You’re welcome”?)
Real-life application ahead
When it does bite us, though, it can leave a mark. When a key employee quits is a big one. The manager thinks, “Why didn’t I see that coming?” and the employee thinks, “Why didn’t my manager ever listen to my concerns?”
When couples break up is another one, especially when the reason is that one partner never listened to either the concerns or reassurances of the other.
It also bites when someone predicts a sale and prepares to deliver it, only to have it fail at the last minute. (If they had actually listened to what their potential customer was saying, instead of calculating their commission check in their head, they would’ve seen it coming a mile away.)
The truth is, many of the things that people shrug off as bad luck or unpredictable are simply things they didn’t see coming because they weren’t paying attention. If you learn to flex your listening muscles, though, you’ll find that the world makes more sense. You’ll better predict the future, and people will think you’re a very interesting person to talk to.
So … what’s the trick?
It’s a simple one that’s admittedly hard to execute, but practicing every day is easy. Here’s what you do:
Step 1: When someone is talking, repeat the words they’re saying in your own head. This will block your ability to think your own words while they’re talking.
Here’s an example: A delivery manager says, “We’re understaffed, and we really need to hire someone before the Christmas rush.” Instead of thinking, “Sorry, we don’t have the money,” while getting ready to say it out loud, repeat their words in your own head: “We’re understaffed, and we really need to hire someone before the Christmas rush.”
Step 2: Repeat back, without adding judgment.
Many people have learned to repeat things back, but it often comes out like this: “OK, so what you’re whining about is staffing. Is that right?” Adding judgment like the word “whining” not only eliminates the value of the conversation, it means you’re being defensive — and definitely not listening.
Here’s how to respond instead (and the fewer words, the better): “I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that we need to hire another person before the Christmas rush starts?”
Once they confirm that you’ve understood, now you can respond. “OK, I hear your concern about rush staffing. I am concerned about how we’ll afford to pay for another person right now, so how close to the rush can we make this hire? What’s the least amount of time you need to train this person?”
That’s it. That’s the entire secret recipe. Get out of your own head and into theirs, and hear them on a new level. That’s listening and responding, not just talking back.
Try it and see how the world responds.