Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Expert as Listener


“When people talk, listen completely. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Earnest Hemmingway

We all know what an expert is, don’t we? That’s a person who knows a lot and gets paid to deliver brilliant answers. The essence of what he does is talk, right?


The so-called expert who can’t or won’t listen well — regardless of how smart he is — is more often than not useless:   
• He gives the wrong answer because he misses important information.

• He gives the right answer to the wrong question.

• He gives the right answer but his answer is incomprehensible to the client or donor.

• He answers the obvious question but completely misses the real question.

• He gives the right answer but completely misses the human implications of both the question and the answer.
• He gives the right answer but his advice isn’t followed because clients and donors don’t trust him.

A real expert is an expert listener.

A real expert realizes that the quality of his answer is only as good as the quality of the information he hears. A real expert knows that if he doesn’t hear the correct question or the real question, his answer — even though correct — will be largely worthless. A real expert recognizes that until clients or donors feel listened to and understood, his answers will be suspect and his recommendations will not be implemented.

A real expert understands that when he sits down with a client or donor, there are two experts in the room, not one. A real expert knows that to find the best answers in today’s complex world, he must bring everyone’s best thinking to bear on the issue at hand, not just his own. A real expert has the temperament and the tools to do so.

A real expert recognizes that, regardless of what others may call his line of work, he is really in the transformation business. Pine and Gilmore have demonstrated in their masterful book, The Experience Economy, that the highest-value product a business can deliver is not goods or services or even experiences. It is the transformation of the client or donor.

A real expert understands that he has been hired to change people, in order to produce a better outcome. He is a catalyst for change, which starts with the way he listens.

A real expert practices what I call “transformational listening.”

Transformational listening goes beyond listening for data, information, or knowledge; it is listening for wisdom and insight. It goes beyond listening with the physical ears; it is listening with ears of discernment.

Transformational listening is not a set of techniques; it is a way of being with another person. It is not based on some clever approach or device; it is based on the deep-down way we see others and ourselves.

An outstanding example of a true expert who practiced transformational listening in his work with clients and donors was Paul Laughlin. Paul was the bank trust officer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who turned a conversation with Osceola McCarty, an 87-year-old uneducated but generous washer woman into a magnificent gift to the University of Southern Mississippi. (See the details in my earlier article at http://www.scottfarnsworth.com/Blog.html#April11.) (April 2011 Osceola McCarty: The Rest of the Story)

Looking beyond her age, her profession, her lack of education, the diminutive size of her banking account, and the color of her skin, Paul listened to Osceola and saw a vision for her future happiness and heard an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the world. Only after applying his expertise as a listener did he deploy his expertise in estate planning and charitable giving.

As a result, Paul not only transformed Osceola’s life but he also dramatically changed the lives of an entire university community, of dozens of future Mississippi school teachers, and of untold numbers of philanthropists, and their advisors who have been inspired by this story. Generations yet unborn will be blessed by Paul’s transformational listening.

If you were to talk with Paul, you would discover a man of great humility, respect, and curiosity. These attributes are essential for the transformational listener.

The transformational listener is humble. He sees himself as constantly open to new understanding. He knows that, as much as he already knows, he still has much to learn about the client or donor’s world. He understands that careful, attentive, and appreciative listening both with his ears and with his heart is the only way he will learn enough about their world to become an expert in it.

The transformational listener is respectful. Regardless of the apparent disparity in age, education, wealth, achievement, rank, status, or power, he sees clients or donors as fellow human travelers, each with unique experiences and exceptional brilliance. He acknowledges their strengths and talents, and honors their life journeys. He knows every person he meets has something important to teach him.

The transformational listener is curious. He can’t wait to discover what lies within the clients’ or donors’ every phrase or paragraph or silent pause. He is fascinated by where their minds will go next, by what stories or insights will spring forth from their thinking if he listens generously and without interruption.

As Paul Laughlin showed, being a real expert is first about listening and only then about speaking. It is more about what we are presently learning than what we previously knew. It is more about harnessing shared brilliance than showing off as a solitary shooting star. It is more about a way of seeing others and being with people than the mastery of a set of techniques.

In the end, it is all about touching hearts and changing lives


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