What Did You Say?

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My table-mates introduced themselves as the reciprocal protocol began. We chatted about what we did, where we did it and what we thought of the conference. Stan joined the table as the chicken was served. He'd been introduced to me earlier and we'd talked briefly during the pre-dinner social. Now he was peppering me with intriguing business questions. This was going to be a lively and interesting discussion, I thought.

But my hopes vanished faster than an ice cube melting in the desert. I realized Stan wasn't listening. He didn't care what I had to say; he was waiting for his turn to talk. And talk he did, monopolizing the table's conversation with his back-patting soliloquy.

That experience got me thinking. My hopes had been raised believing that someone asking thoughtful questions might be interested in the answers. But that's a rare find in this too-busy-to-listen world. We're too busy answering our cell phones, checking our BlackBerries, and posting our instant messages. We're so busy communicating that we fail to communicate. We think because we said something, it was understood. We confuse communicating with understanding, and silence with listening.

But the absence of talking is not necessarily listening. Real listening requires focused attention and a quiet mind. It's deep, not surface. You do it to understand, not so you can talk when someone pauses. Deep listening comes from the heart, as well as the head.

Deep listeners ignite ideas, influence outcomes and build relationships. They're wonderful to be around. There are few behaviors more powerful in the workplace than receiving someone's focused attention on what you're saying. It makes you feel valued and respected because it's clear that what you have to say matters to them. Deep listeners create dialogues, encourage thoughtful exchanges and enhance creativity. They also build their careers.

I learned to deepen my listening skills by using a technique called reflective summary. So for example, if I said to you, "I had a flat tire on the way to work and missed my boss's meeting," the typical response might be, "Yeah, I had a tough morning, too." Or you might share a similar experience. But a reflective summary statement summarizes your understanding of what it is I said. So, you might respond, "You're concerned you missed your boss's meeting?" If you summarized my message correctly then I'd continue with my concerns. If not, I'd clarify. Either way, we'd improve our communication.

So, here's my bottom-line advice after twenty years in management. If you want to be winning at working, develop deep listening skills. You see, people who are winning at working know they learn more by listening than talking; persuade more by understanding than arguing; and problem-solve more by asking than telling. People who are winning at working have discovered the power of listening.

© 2006Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Sign up to receive Nan's free biweekly eColumn at Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, small business owner, and instructor. Visit or contact Nan at

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