When was the last time you were at a party and you couldn’t for the life of you remember the name of the person chatting to you? It happens, right? And it’s sometimes very embarrassing. I saw a girl once who started making her way across the room when she spotted me. As she started reaching out, with a big smile on her face, I turned to look behind me, not realizing she was coming over just to greet me. It’s moments like these I wished the floor would swallow me up.
I used to be terrible with names and I thought it was just one of those things people had to live with, throughout my teenage years and early twenties. I could never remember where I parked my car either. My phone is now filled with shots of car park pillars, to combat this, which helps me remember exactly where my car is. As time went on, I realized this was not a condition I was afflicted with. I was simply not paying attention. And paying attention means really listening when information is exchanged.
I knew I needed to take this whole business of listening more seriously when my university lecturer expressed how the best entrepreneurs in the world might fail if they lacked the ability to listen. He then went on to explain the difference between hearing and actively listening. He said a person actively listening to a speech can be as tired as the person delivering it, because it takes effort to absorb and try to understand what someone is saying.
In an article from ‘Business Week’ which speaks about how great listeners make great leaders, a reporter who has interviewed CEOs and leaders round the world was asked who was the most inspiring person he has met. He told ‘Business Week’ it was Bill Clinton because, “Clinton looked me in the eye and seemed to have a genuine interest in what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He made me feel like the most important person in the room.”
When we meet people who really take the time to be present and focus on what we are saying, we feel heard. It is very telling when you are speaking to someone who keeps looking over your shoulder or somewhere else, that they are not fully present or paying attention to you. It is also annoying talking to someone who is already trying to work out what they are going to say next because this means they are only hearing what you are saying, rather than really listening to you. Eye contact is another sign of a great listener. It’s not just important over a handshake. It needs to be maintained throughout a conversation.
With conscious effort, I started to slowly improve with remembering names in the “social” department (though I’m far from perfect), but my most dramatic improvement in the listening arena has been in business. Without active listening skills, I would not be able to emcee events, adapt to last minute changes on the fly or deal with the diversity of demands from my various advertising clients on what they expect from me. For instance, when a client is briefing my production house on a particular “look and feel” for a campaign or TV show we are developing, it becomes so crucial to pay close attention to not only what the client is saying, but how they are saying it. Every nuance or clue from what someone is trying to communicate needs to be taken into consideration from their body language, to tone of voice. Servicing a client in a creative field is definitely not easy because art is so subjective, but like any good relationship, when both parties finally arrive on the same page, it’s a fantastic feeling to be in sync, and business runs much smoothly when everyone understands each other.
Listening skills also applies to managing the fast paced, ever changing world of social media. It is interesting to note that Jim Breyer, Managing Partner of Accel Partners, attributes Mark Zuckerberg's listening skills as a major contributor in leading Facebook to its success. According to Forbes, Mark Zuckerberg used to take walks with Steve Jobs near his estate listening and absorbing everything the visionary had to say, like a sponge. Interestingly, the New York Times wrote that Mark Zuckerberg then started to take walks himself (like the late Jobs) with potential employees to get to know them better before making any hiring decisions.
Listening does not just teach you about the people you interact with but it helps you gain wisdom and knowledge about the world around us. As ever-bubbly actress, Drew Barrymore once said, “It's only through listening that you learn, and I never want to stop learning."