No one on his deathbed ever said “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”
Don’t get me wrong. Work is a wonderful thing. It can be very fulfilling and can provide meaningful service to others. But personal relationships are the most important things in our lives. It’s through relationships with others that we learn about ourselves, about how to make choices, how to self correct, how to grow and develop, how to contribute to the human community, how to turn dreams into reality.
And listening is the most important behavior in those relationships. Really listening. This requires using your eyes and your heart as well as your ears. Effective people listen to learn and understand rather than to rebut and overpower. They exercise influence rather than authority. They’re willing to be influenced rather than assuming that the views of others should always be subservient to theirs.
A comic once said that authentic communication is 50% sincerity, and then you just fake the rest. That line may get a chuckle, but it’s a dangerous practice. Genuine listening is much, much more than eye contact and an occasional “uh-huh.” Genuine listening involves connecting heart to heart and working to understand the other person’s viewpoint even if you don’t agree with it.
Listening with true empathy is the best kind of listening. Most people don’t want sympathy. They want empathy, which is all about understanding.
I love the story of the little girl who was late coming home. Her mother was worried. When the little girl finally arrived, she explained that she had stopped to be with a friend whose doll was broken. “Oh, did you help her fix her dolly?” her mother asked. “No,” replied the little girl, “I helped her cry.”
Listening with empathy is not some touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy behavior. It’s the key to effective human relationships. The best teachers listen with empathy because they know you can’t teach effectively without knowing where the learners are. The best doctors listen with empathy because they know that prescribing without properly diagnosing is simply bad medicine.
The best business people listen with empathy because they know that filling customer needs is the path to success. The best parents listen with empathy because they know that raising children requires on-the-job training and that important clues to family health can come from the mouths of babes.
Happy and effective people tend to be good conversationalists. And the best conversationalists are usually people who ask good questions. They don’t interrogate, they simply ask meaningful questions that other people are willing to answer. People who are really good at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of others tend to ask questions that evoke that engagement. And when they ask their good questions, they actually listen to the answers.
We are most effective when we talk so other people will listen and when we listen so other people will talk. It’s a common sense thing. Unfortunately, common sense is not all that common.