Become Masterful at Conversations

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” – Robert Frost

Can you imagine spending 80% of your communication time listening? Listening to whom? Listening to what?

If you did allot that much time to listening, you’d soon be spending most of your time hearing the same-old, same-old — mostly from grumblers and goof-offs.

Yes, you would get the occasional good idea, but only a fool or a bureaucrat would devote so much of his productive time to such an unproductive exercise. Real leaders — individuals who have acquired, through successful experience, a knowledge of how to succeed — have a burning desire to communicate their knowledge to others and then to use the rest of their communication time to light fires.

The great leaders I know — and I’m thinking about theater directors, athletic coaches, and clergymen, as well as businesspeople — are impatient listeners. They know that most of what is being said to them is irrelevant, superfluous, off-center, or dead wrong. Yes, they make an effort to listen — they have to because their impulse is to not listen at all. But for the most part they want their conversations shorter and more pointed. They know that most people communicate about three minutes of useful information in 30. To spend 27 minutes listening — simply to make the talker feel important — is sheer idiocy.

The problem with most business communication isn’t poor listening; it’s poor talking. Good talking is like good writing. You must start off with a good idea. When you have a good idea, it can usually be expressed very simply and quickly. If you express a good idea to an experienced and successful businessperson, he’ll usually recognize it as good and tell you so right away.

But most people don’t have good ideas. In fact, most people don’t have distinct ideas at all. Instead, they have vague, emotionally laden reveries … with words attached … that they attempt to convey without analysis, consideration, and preparation.

“By devoting some 80% of their communication time to listening-related activities,” the newsletter continues, “leaders usually head off a great deal of the conflict that arises in companies when people feel no one is listening.”

As if heading off conflict is the job of a leader.

As if paying attention to problems would make them go away.

If you want to be a good leader and a good communicator, learn these ETR strategies for practical listening:

1. If someone wants to vent, let him. But after about two minutes ask him, politely, to summarize his thoughts and feelings in a sentence or two.

2. Feel free to interrupt windbags frequently and encourage them to state their point succinctly.

3. Listen to the literal level of what is being said but pay attention to the emotional backdrop. In responding, keep those emotional concerns in mind.

4. Try to break down every conversation into component parts. Most discussions get derailed when the conversation flows from one subject to another and back again. Assign a “title” to each major point and then finish that conversation before you go on to the next.

5. Any individual point of discussion should not take more than five or 10 minutes to complete. Any time in excess of that is usually a conversation about the emotional background, not the subject at hand. Treat the other person’s time with respect and expect the same from him.

6. A few minutes before the end of the time you have allocated for the conversation, tell your interlocutor that you must stop talking and summarize the main points, identify what action needs to be taken, and, if necessary, schedule an additional conversation.

If you can get yourself into the habit of doing these six things, you will not only save time and get more work done, you’ll also impress those you speak to as a person of intelligence and intellectual strength.