It Pays To Listen.
“Women like silent men. They think they’re listening.” Marcel Achard
We’re all guilty of being dumb listeners. We engage in a conversation, giving the impression we’re interested. I say “giving the impression” because it’s just an impression. Do we actually care what the other person is saying?
Or are we already formulating our own response?
This is what separates smart listeners from dumb listeners. Smart listeners are really hoarders. They collect words, thoughts, impressions, believing that any conversation could have something of value. While we’re formulating responses, in other words, they’re gathering knowledge.
Smart listeners, for instance, can always remember a comment someone made that impacted on their lives. They’ll say things like: “I had a boss once who told me to get out of the brokerage business. I left and never looked back.”
If you’re thinking: “Well, I always listen to people who are really smart,” that could be your biggest problem.
How many of us heed the words of others? How many of us are willing to change based on someone else’s advice?
If you’re thinking: “Well, I always listen to people who are really smart,” that could be your biggest problem. Not everyone comes with a sign saying they’re really smart. Some of the wisest people never knew they were wise.
They didn’t look the part, so we never gave them much attention. Nobody thought Henry David Thoreau was wise, so he had to write a book. Even then, nobody thought he was special. Writing about ponds didn’t help, either.
Many years ago, just before the Great Depression, J.D. Rockefeller was walking through the business district in New York. Those were good years for Rockefeller. He’d made a lot of money through his investments, and had every reason to believe it would continue.
When he stopped to buy a newspaper, there was a shoeshine boy talking to a customer. The boy was telling him: “If you want to make a lot of money, invest in this stock.”
Rockefeller went straight to his office and sold all his stock holdings. As he explained later: “The day a shoeshine boy starts giving investment advice, that’s the day to get out.”
How many other passersby heard that shoeshine boy talking? How many realized what Rockefeller realized?
It’s the innate ability to hear what other people ignore. You could say Rockefeller was a good eavesdropper.
Smart listening is obviously a gift, a sixth sense. It’s the innate ability to hear what other people ignore. You could say Rockefeller was a good eavesdropper. That’s probably true of all smart listeners.
I remember a famous ad once that said: “Be careful discussing your ideas on the elevator. They may become someone else’s ideas.” Should we blame those people for stealing ideas, or admire them for paying attention? Maybe plagiarists are the best listeners.
Warren Buffett told a story once about being on a train with a colleague. As they passed through a railway yard, Buffet was amazing at the number of rail cars being shunted and linked. “That goes on nonstop day and night,” his colleague said to him. “And it’s like that in every rail hub across America.”
Was that Buffett’s inspiration for buying Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad? Buffett didn’t say. What we do know is he recalled his colleague’s words. Sometimes off-the-cuff comments can be turned into gold.
One commentator, years ago, argued that Richard Nixon listened as well as Clinton. Problem was, Nixon’s eyes were everywhere.
If you watch Bill Clinton in an interview, his eyes never leave the speaker. Every word is important to him. This intensity — this willingness to take everything in — is what his advisors called his “most endearing quality.” One commentator, years ago, argued that Richard Nixon listened as well as Clinton. Problem was, Nixon’s eyes were everywhere. Voters hated that about Nixon. Clinton’s direct stare, on the other hand, appealed to voters immensely. He still has one of the highest popularity ratings in history.
Nixon has one of the worst.
Clinton and Buffett have something else in common. It isn’t an encyclopedic memory so much as a dedicated one. While Buffett’s folksy stories are endearing, they also show his respect for the thoughts and words of others.
In the same way, when Clinton mentioned something a housewife or construction worker said to him on the campaign trail, it sounded sincere. It didn’t feel scripted. He believed, so we believed.
Ernest Hemingway was quite a talker himself, but he knew when to use his ears instead of his mouth. Near the end of his life, he admitted that many dialogues in his books were very close to transcription. Believable dialogue is always that way. It isn’t the construct of imagination, it’s the construct of remembering.
I wrote page after page until one morning I read what I’d written. Everyone sounded the same. Why? They were all me.
When I started my first novel, I thought of all the things I wanted my characters to say. I wrote page after page until one morning I read what I’d written. Everyone sounded the same. Why? They were all me. I was listening to myself when I wrote instead of my characters.
The next morning I started again, this time stepping back, letting other people speak for a change. Before I knew it, whole dialogues were taking place. They went to work, drove to the store, fell in with other people. Each time they did, they became more whole and real. They were letting me into their lives, becoming my friends.
I listened through the whole book, realizing what Hemingway said was true. If you “listen completely” you learn so much. My characters said things I never would have thought of, yet they were imaginary. How was that possible?
As the Dali Lama once said: “When you speak you are repeating something you already know. When you listen, you learn something new.”
Here’s what I realized: Talking doesn’t just stop us from hearing other people. It stops us from hearing ourselves. As the Dali Lama once said: “When you speak you are repeating something you already know. When you listen, you learn something new.”
With everyone talking these days, on their phones, sitting in restaurants, we’ve become more interested in conversation than content. We’re inspired by what’s on television instead of the real world around us. We talk about box scores and batting averages and whether it will rain tomorrow.
While we’re doing that, what are successful people doing? The Buffetts, the Clintons, the Dali Lama, they’re all listening. If we did the same, we wouldn’t just learn to be successful. We’d learn about ourselves.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, blogger and author of “You Can Lead A Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive).” You can join him every day by subscribing to email@example.com/subscription.