“You never learned anything while you were talking.”
Those words of wisdom encapsulated everything Barnard Collier had learned about listening in his career as a journalist, but they didn’t come from a newspaper editor or professor. Instead, they were written on the wall of a restaurant where Collier was a chef. It goes to show that keeping your eyes open is part of being a great listener.
“You not only listen with accuracy so that you’re hearing the right words, but you’re also getting the implications of the rest of their nonverbal language: how they smell, where they look. Think of all of the things that you could look at and absorb while you’re listening,” he says.
Collier has built his career on the art of listening well. He first learned it as an anthropology student, when he had to learn how to communicate with people who did not necessarily speak his language. Those skills served him well later in life when he became a journalist. Collier is best known for covering the Woodstock festival as a reporter for the New York Times, where he was among the first to recognize the concert’s huge cultural significance.
Today Collier is a consultant for a New York City company called Graphology Consulting Group, which is in the business of analyzing handwriting, often on behalf of companies. Collier says you can tell a bad listener by his handwriting.
“The biggest thing that salesmen have to learn is how to listen,” he says. “Often they think salesmanship is talking and not listening. We can see that in their handwriting. The clearest way to tell if someone is a bad listener is when they leave the top of their o’s open.”
Collier is not the first to arrive at the insight that listening is key to business communication. Yet, it is often an overlooked message.
Business people can learn how to be a better listener Monday, June 10, at a dinner meeting of the Princeton chapter of the Human Resources Management Association. DonnaLyn Giegerich will give a talk entitled, “The Lost Art of Listening: How to Leverage the Gift for Gain.” The event will take place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. The cost is $40 for SHR members, $50 for non-members. For more information, visit www.hrma-nj.shrm.org.
Giegerich has her own consulting company that specializes in training and speeches. A rare survivor of leiomyosarcoma malignant cancer, Giegerich is also the co-founder and spokesperson for Kick Cancer Overboard, a nonprofit group that takes cancer patients on a trip to Bermuda every year. Geigerich is the co-owner of Heritage Benefits Group and partner at Couch Braunsdorf Insurance, and is a former adjunct professor of economic and finance at Monmouth University. She is also a Mrs. New Jersey pageant winner.
Giegerich’s session will focus on how business people can commit to listening and learning in addition to talking, and be more “present” in conversation, a skill she says is on the wane in the age of digital distractions.
People like Collier, however, have accomplished great things by being great listeners. Collier has made listening the cornerstone of his career as a journalist and businessperson.
“I’ve listened all my life,” he says. “In all the stories that I’ve done, I listened carefully. My rule was to listen hard enough that you would be able to explain it to your grandchildren. It really disciplines you.”
For reporters or anyone else doing an interview for that matter, listening and asking questions go hand-in-hand.
“Reporters and editors have to really understand that their questions are usually much more powerful or stupid than they think they are,” Collier says. “Questions are the most powerful form of suggestions. You can only understand what kinds of questions to ask when you listen very carefully to what people tell you. If you let people freely express themselves and express their minds, then naturally smart questions will come up.”
Listening is also key to getting through the tougher situations that arise in business.
New York-based writer Donna Flagg, a consultant and workplace expert, has written a book called, “Surviving Dreaded Conversations.” In the book, Flagg discusses how people’s emotional baggage can distort their perceptions of events and interfere with their ability to truly listen to what other people are saying. She recalls one incident where a co-worker, who was her superior, caused chaos by not listening well.
“We would be in a meeting together, but it was like she was in a completely different meeting than me. We were managing a territory. I can’t really say if she was not listening, or if she was distorting what she heard. It became a huge problem over time. We couldn’t agree on what we were supposed to be doing for our accounts.”
Flagg said that to be a good listener, a person must be fully aware of their own emotions and unconscious behaviors that might affect their perceptions. For Flagg, truly listening to others begins with truly knowing one’s self.
“You have to be aware of yourself,” she says. “We apply what we know and what we see to every situation. You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I neutral here? Do I have clarity here? Or am I clouding it with my personal thoughts, my personal feelings, and my personal history?” she says.
“I think that whatever historical patterns we have, whatever unconscious behaviors, fear, insecurity or anger you have, you get yourself into a situation and those things get triggered, and suddenly we are having a conversation fueled by that. We end up making a mess out of something that doesn’t have to be so dramatic or so challenging.”
Flagg says the skills of being a good listener cannot be reduced to easily digested tips as they often are in self-help books.
“It’s a skill you develop by practicing over time,” she says. “That’s where I think the literature goes wrong. They put out the tips as though everything is packageable in five easy ways, and it’s not realistic. It doesn’t work that way.”
All three experts would probably agree that listening is just as important as talking in any conversation, if not more so. The key to both, Flagg says, is self-mastery.
“Whether you’re doing the talking or the listening, you’ve got to get out of your own way,” she says. “It requires you to know yourself.”