Listening. Mattering

teapot

This past week I met with a client who bought some broadcast cameras and robotics from me not long ago. He told me that he had paid more for my proposal than that of my two competitors. Of course I asked why.

I was surprised. This had been an internet lead, something we don’t get many of in the systems integration industry, just out of the blue. I called him back after he left a note, and we talked two times to nail down what he wanted this system to do, and what was important to him. He had been careful and honest, telling me that I had two competitors that he has worked with in the past, and that price mattered. So of course I expected that I had won it because I was cheapest.

“No.” he said, “Not even close.” When he told me how much more he paid than the other guys, I blinked. It was a lot. And I asked the obvious question.

“Why?”

I didn’t get a quick one line answer. Instead he talked about what he was trying to accomplish, what he wanted to do there, the quality he wanted, the work flow he was trying to accomplish, a lot of things he had told me about in those first two calls, and I reminded him of that. “Exactly,” he said. “But everyone else stopped listening at “price”, you listened to what I wanted. What I wanted mattered. I mattered.”.

We all want to matter. And such a big part of feeling like we matter is having someone listen to us.

Not just hear, but listen. Anyone can hear. But not everyone listens. We’re all trying to do something with what people are telling us, whether it’s in conversation, or in “big data” or sales or management or whatever. We listen and are too often formulating a response before the person we’re listening to has even finished. It’s like we’re bound and determined to make sure they know we are smart enough to figure out what they are saying before they finish. We do it at work. We do it at home. We do it in our personal relationships.

Sometimes, we may actually be smart enough to figure it out before they finish the sentence, but that misses the point. When we walk over someone talking, showing how smart we are, how well we are listening….. we’re actually saying, even though we rarely want to be saying it, that they are not important enough to listen to. That WE are the important ones in this conversation. And if we want someone to feel like they matter…. perhaps we need to let them talk to the end.

There’s plenty of time for questions and clarifying later.

Listening to someone takes work. Our brains work faster than our voices. Someone spouts off a sentence or two and our brains are capable of thinking half a dozen things before the other person gets the third sentence off. And because we live in a world where productivity is so important, where time is so strapped, where it’s all about doing more in less time, we’ve become trained in our lives to try and speed up conversation as well. But at our own peril.

Because too often, when we cut off someone, we miss things they would have told us, had they not been cut off. Often, we miss the most important part, the part that matters, because the first part of our conversation is often background, or working up to the real subject. Some people will push to be heard, but cut them off enough times, more times than not they just won’t. And even if they don’t say it, or can’t really articulate it, they will feel diminished, less important…. like they don’t matter.

So we have to slow our brains down. We have to say “This deserves the time”, which is really saying “This PERSON deserves the time.”, even if we are caught up in schedules, or impatience, or knowing that we “get it” before they finish. Because it’s not about us. It’s about making them feel their value. Or not.

It’s work to listen well. We have to shut our egos down and at times seem less smart as we ask questions and clarify and perhaps seem a little thickheaded at first. That makes us feel a little vulnerable and less smart. But in the end, we are more smart when we do it, because we show others how much THEY matter.

I’ve not always done it well, so don’t think I am coming at this from an “I’m so great” place. But I have learned a lot of lessons from the times I’ve done it poorly, and from others have done it poorly towards me. I’ve lost sales. I’ve lost relationships. I’ve not been as good for people as I wanted to be. And slowly, slowly, I’ve learned to slow down. To give them to time. To listen.

I think it’s interesting that more and more people, even though they use internet shopping, seem to be less enamoured of it. It’s efficient. Amazon tells me what I want to read because it uses big data to look at what I’ve bought, but they never quite get it right. However I can go to the Northshire Bookstore in nearby Manchester, Vermont, and talk for a few minutes to one of their sales people, who listens, thinks, clarifies, and listens again, and helps me find something wonderful for where I am in the moment, not where I was when I bought my last book.

What does that mean? I may buy from Amazon, but I love and have loyalty to Northshire. I spend more of my book money there than anywhere else. I’ll wait to buy a book there when I am traveling, rather than at a big bookstore. Because they make me feel like I matter.

I want to make people feel like they matter. I want to make clients feel like they matter because that means I make more sales, and have loyal customers who come back to me again and again. They trust that they are more than a name and an account number. They are people. I want to make my friends feel like they matter because they are important to me. And I want my family and other closest relationships matter because, well because they are the most important people in my life.

What are some of the things I do to try and listen better?
I turn off my agenda, if I can. And focus on what’s being said. It’s amazing how much better I can hear if I am not trying to listen to myself and the other person at the same time.
I take notes, on paper if I can, in my head if I can’t, trying to organize what I am hearing. Conversations aren’t linear, so part of me is organizing as I listen. If I can use paper, I use mind maps to take the notes because like conversation, it’s non-linear.
I give it time. That means, for instance, that if an appointment should be an hour, I map out an hour and a half, so if it runs over, I am not rushed, and I can give the conversation the time it, and the person who is talking, the time they deserve.

Working this way is less “efficient”, but I’ve found over the long haul, and in terms of building relationships, not just projects and sales, it’s more effective.

I’ve learned that despite the fact that I’ve taken and taught courses on listening (My first was a three day course, which I thought was stupid…. until I took it.), and that I’ve long been aware of the value of listening well, that life and society speeds us up. It takes discipline to slow down in today’s world. But the value of that slowing down and listening is beyond words. Because mattering is beyond words.

Be well, travel wisely.

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