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Having a decent conversation with another person is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s much easier to talk and to express one’s opinion more than ever, but it’s now far harder to converse. We need not look beyond our political climate to know this. It’s not so much that we can’t talk about politics, because everyone is more than happy to share their opinion. It’s rather that we can’t converse since we don’t tend to listen.
In her book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, journalist Kate Murphy recounts the story of a bi-partisan conversation. In this meeting, the moderator attempted to facilitate conversation by the use of a talking stick. What ended up happening? Someone threw the stick at someone else.
The worst thing about this is probably not that it happened, but that we’re all not that surprised that it did.
To Sell is Human
In his book, To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink posits that the majority of Westerners spend the majority of their time at work and in life, in sales. It may not be convincing someone to buy a car or a photocopier, but in some way, most of us are trying to convince somebody to do something. We are constantly trying to convince our children, partners, clients, and colleagues.
Right now, I am trying to sell you on the idea that listening is one of the greatest and most necessary skills for true success. Why? Because great salespeople, and therefore great people, listen.
Take for example the classic story of the origin of the Betty Crocker cake mix. All one needed to bake a cake was to add water to the mix and throw it in the oven. You would think it’d sell like hotcakes, but it didn’t.
As it turns out, people felt guilty about using it. It was too easy. So General Mills listened, took that information, and required the mix to need real eggs. What happened? Sales soared.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway
How can we become better listeners?
Why is selling and listening so hard today? Because we are slowly (or rather rapidly), losing two qualities: Confidence and Curiosity.
In her book, Murphy suggests that insecure people can’t or don’t like to listen. She writes, “Confident people don’t get riled by opinions different from their own, nor do they spew bile online by way of refutation. Secure people don’t decide others are irredeemably stupid or malicious without knowing who they are as individuals.”
But isn’t that what most people do? If we’re being honest, isn’t that what we do? Isn’t the reason why we can’t talk about politics or religion because we aren’t confident and secure in our own beliefs and self? Or maybe we are afraid that the person we are talking to will throw a talking stick at our head.
In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt, recount story after story of college students associating challenged beliefs to physical harm. More and more, young people are associating if not equating having their beliefs challenged to being physically harmed. Consequently, students have reacted in physical violence towards people/groups that have peacefully met because they did not like what they heard.
According to a nationwide survey of college and university students conducted by the Brookings Institution, “More than half, 51 percent, thought it was “acceptable” to shout down a speaker with whom they disagreed and almost a fifth, 19 percent, supported using violence to prevent a speaker from delivering an address.”
Have you ever thought, “how can people ignore science? the facts? the evidence?” We have all been there. Trying to convince somebody of something, providing all the facts, research, and logic, and yet the person will not even consider our opinion.
Dan M. Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, suggests it is because they do not possess or have lost their scientific curiosity. People simply do not want or even care to know what the “other” person thinks or another possibility.
This shouldn’t be a surprise in our hyper-individualized society where we are told to trust our gut and ourselves. When “your truth is yours and my truth is mine,” becomes the dominant script, it reinforces the view that other people’s opinions and views are not important nor informed.
President Donald Trump famously said, “My primary consultant is myself.” If we were honest, how many of us would say the same thing?
To become a good listener and therefore a good salesperson, or simply a good person, we must possess curiosity. We must develop an attitude and posture that genuinely seeks to understand something or someone, that we can’t initially.
“Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people who are on the front line.” – Richard Branson
Hand in Hand
What is so fascinating in our “believe in yourself,” “trust your gut,” “your truth is your truth” world, is that people are becoming less confident and less curious. None of us get defensive or violent when a child gives their opinion or challenges our own beliefs. But when an adult does, we may find ourselves in a panicky rage.
If you’re aware of the concept of an echo chamber— people are more and more ignoring what they already do not believe and believing more deeply what they already do. Their news feed, Facebook feed, and other social media feeds, purposefully feed information that they like (which is often what they agree with), increasing the narrative they already possess.
Although we are politically still 50/50, it is vastly different than it was 25 years ago. As late as the 90s, republicans and democrats were able to make decisions together for the greater good. Apparently, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Republican President Ronald Reagan would have drinks together after work at the White House. After one particular polarized fight, O’Neil said to Reagan, “Reagan, “Old buddy, that’s politics—after six o’clock, we can be friends.”
We think we have become more enlightened but science, research, and evidence would suggest otherwise. The vast majority of us are becoming less confident and curious, and more insecure and arrogant. We are becoming poor listeners, and therefore poor salespeople and ultimately poor leaders and people.
If any of us want to become truly great and successful people that are worth listening to, then we better learn how to listen. We all have to work with people and we are all selling ideas, so we better learn how to listen and become both confident in our beliefs and genuinely curious about others.