Wednesday, March 17, 2021

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: I'm All Ears - The Expert Listener



"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." Karl A. Menniger

“Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Will Rogers


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 they do is talk, right?


The so-called expert who can’t or won’t listen well — regardless of how smart they are — is, more often than not, useless:

 ·    They give the wrong answer because they miss important information.

·     They give the right answer to the wrong question.

·     They give the right answer but their answer is incomprehensible to the client, patient, or customer.

·     They answer the obvious question but miss the real question.

·    They give the right answer but miss the human implications of both the question and the answer.

·    They give the right answer but their advice isn’t followed because clients, patients, or customers don’t trust them.

A real expert is an expert listener. 

A real expert realizes that the quality of their answer is only as good as the quality of the information they hear. A real expert knows that if they don’t hear the correct question or the real question, their answer — even though correct — will be largely worthless. A real expert recognizes that until clients, patients, customers, or friends or colleagues who need guidance feel listened to and understood, their answers will be suspect and their recommendations will not be implemented. 

Great listeners are far more likely to be successful, whatever their profession. As Bernard Baruch said, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

A real expert understands that when they’re in the presence of a client, a patient, or a customer, there are two experts in the room, not one. A real expert knows that to find the best answers in today’s complex world, they must bring everyone’s best thinking to bear on the issue at hand, not just their own. A real expert has the temperament and the tools to do that.

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 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 scholarship gift to the University of Southern Mississippi. 




Looking beyond her age, her profession, her lack of education, the size of her bank 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.

Paul and I were once colleagues working in the trust department of the same bank. If you were to talk with Paul, you would discover a man of great humility, respect, and curiosity. These attributes are essential for a transformational listener.  

The transformational listener is HUMBLE. They see themselves as constantly open to new understanding. They know that, as much as they already know, they still have much to learn about the customer’s world. They understand that careful, attentive, and appreciative listening both with their ears and with their heart is the only way they will learn enough about their customer’s 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, they see clients, patients, customers, or friends or colleagues who need guidance, as fellow human travelers, each with unique experiences and exceptional brilliance. They acknowledge their clients’ strengths and talents, and honor their life journey. They know that every person they meet has something important to teach them.

The transformational listener is CURIOUS. They can’t wait to discover what lies within the clients’ every phrase or paragraph or silent pause. They are fascinated by where their customers’ minds will go next, by what stories or insights will spring forth from their thinking if they are listened to 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. 

Great listening is TRANSFORMATIONAL. It changes both the one who’s speaking and the one who’s listening. And over time, it changes the world.


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