I enjoy listening. I’ve made a career out of my natural curiosity. Socially as well as at work, I enjoy ‘collecting’ people – the stories they tell, the things they reveal about themselves, their motivations, their needs. I keep a kind of internal insight bank as an ongoing analysis of what I’ve seen and heard. It’s a bank I dip into in order to draw out meaning and implications for business and for life.
After a drinks party over Christmas, my wife complained that she’d got stuck chatting to someone who ‘just talked at me.... didn’t ask a single question. It was like being on the end of his Facebook feed.’
I know what she means; the way many people talk about themselves now has a social media inflection. Parties in particular mirror social networks – some friends, a whole bunch of acquaintances, then a lot more people you don’t really know but now have a connection with (as a potential audience). People can start to talk in lists. Conversation is a continuous, one-way broadcast. What works in the digital worlds of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or WhatsApp takes form in real life.
I’m not criticising the guy my wife got stuck with. A listener isn’t a better person than a broadcaster. It’s more that broadcasters miss out on so much because they don’t listen.
Listening is fun. You have to dig in to get underneath the broadcast-me content. That means breaking through the feed, interrupting and asking questions, cycling over the content and allowing repetition to reveal hidden truths. These conversations aren’t frustrating broadcast battles, they’re interesting and challenging – you’re hunting for gems.
Listening is interesting. People’s hidden stories are fascinating, enriching, inspiring and occasionally appalling. For example: the gut-wrenching story of an American mother, battling with dementia, pulling a gun on her father; the lost-family sadness and regret of a super-successful multi-millionaire; or the deeply held love of a couple for their dog.
Finally, and for me most importantly, listening connects us to other people and it connects them to us. We all enjoy being listened to; there’s something magnetic, addictive about being the full focus of someone else’s attention. The more you listen, the stronger the connection you create.