Young entrepreneurs make good listeners
One group which stands out is young entrepreneurs. The smartest of the bunch will ask probing, intelligent questions of those with more experience, and then shut up and listen. They realize that older entrpreneurs have valuable experience; that newbies can learn from their success and failure; that the solutions to their own business challenges may be gleaned from others' trial and error.
Last year I was at a local bar with some friends. Introductions were made all around, and I met Rob, a 21-year-old college student. I asked the common question "What do you study/do for a living?" Rob answered this at length, saying he had two opportunities in his field, either an internship at a prestigious firm or a full time job at another company.
Since I'm older, with more experience and contacts in a range of fields, when our conversation started and I learned Rob was focused on packaging design, I started thinking how I might help him. When people are receptive to making connections, and appreciative of others' assistance, I'm always happy to help any way I can.
But as Rob went on and on about his great opportunities, it seemed his biggest problem was choosing between two good options. He never paused to ask me a question about myself, and didn't show any humility about his skill and opportunities. I eventually soured on him and ended the conversation with "Well, that's great, good luck with it," moving on to talk to other people.
"Youth is wasted on the young"
Some people in their 20s can be very self-centered. They think the world revolves around them; they're arrogant; they're unaware of their own ignorance. I've not only observed this firsthand, but I was once like this too.
I never really learned to listen until my mid-20s
I always had something to say. I wasn't cruel, but I was often dismissive or critical of others' opinions, tastes and interests. And living in the Midwest, it was rare to be called on my attitude, and I was mostly oblivious. I had good friends and acquaintances, but sometimes found it hard to make new friends. Then I found How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie's classic book first published in 1936. I read it carefully and took to heart its key tenets. If you read it today (especially an early, unrevised version) you may find some of the advice quaint but irrelevant to the 21st century. But it also presents timeless ideas such as:
- Fully listen to others. Let them do most of the talking.
- Express gratitude
- Be diplomatic
- Remember peoples' names and show genuine interest in their lives
- Let people come to their own conclusions
And it works!
When I started following some of the book's suggestions, people noticed. Especially women. I don't recall anyone giving me the classic Hollywood line "Oh, you're such a good listener," but in different ways, women have shown they appreciate direct, sustained listening. This is not the cliche case of someone droning on about trivia as I pretend to care; it's not sitting for an hour while someone vents.
Listening intently to one person, without distraction or interruption, is something I strive to do every day. This is what I was doing, for a little while with Rob. Listening is hard. I often feel I have something to add, to interject. If I think I know the direction of the other person's words, I get impatient. Yeah, yeah, I already know what you're going to say. I try to turn down my internal monologue and just hear the speaker.
Being a good listener doesn't mean staying silent, but it means you must let the speaker finish their sentence, their paragraph, their thought, allowing pauses in the conversation. According to The Charisma Myth, pausing in your own speech and allowing pauses between speakers projects confidence. It shows you're not compelled to full every available space with words. When you're confident in your words, you don't have to rush them.
Now that I've seen the light...
I remember a date via Match.com a few years back. After some online correspondence, we arranged to meet for coffee. She cancelled the first date at the last minute. When we rescheduled, she showed up late, said she only had 40 minutes instead of an hour, and proceeded to talk about herself for nearly the entire date. I don't recall her asking much about me. At the end of the date, she said "I'm not looking for a boyfriend, really, just to make new friends." It just kept getting better.
To be fair to my date, she may have just been nervous. Some people get nervous and can't stop talking, even though they don't intend to monopolize the conversation. Still, now that I've learned to relax in conversations and listen more intently, it's easy to recognize when others completely fail to do so, and how that makes me feel about them.