The Art of Listening

I could write book after book on the experiences I encountered in the many summers I sold books with the Southwestern Company–over 110 weeks of 80+ hours of door-to-door selling in various neighborhoods across America. Those doors refined me and helped to reveal any of the strengths and character traits that were buried deep inside me. They made me who I am, but things could’ve turned out completely different if it wasn’t for Ramona Laguana, whom I met my first summer.

Ramona was a “student manager” during my first summer of selling educational books with Southwestern. She was not my personal manager, she made zero money off anything I did, and got zero awards, recognition, or accolades for anything leadership related.

However, Ramona saved my summer. This altered the course of the next 20 years of my life.

The fact that I finished as the top first year in the organization was a miracle! I was way off schedule, had very little purpose, and had an “arrogance about me,” as my own manager put it.

My best friend and my only roommate in the field (also the only one I had committed to that I would finish the summer) decided during week three that he was done. He was quitting and going home! This job was torture! Selling in the heat of the Texas summer sun, we had both lost over 10 lbs. of sweat weight during the first two weeks of 14-hour days. Actually “selling” was not the correct word for it–hoping to just get inside a home to experience a few minutes of air-conditioning was becoming the true goal!

At the end of those 14-hour days, we would use our landlord’s rotary landline to call a student manager. This was so we could report our stats. On Sundays, our “day off”, we would have team meetings for most of the day. Part of that was a 15-20 minute one-on-one personal conference with a student manager. We would get some advanced personal coaching from the wisdom of a “young 20s manager.” Usually, this was a pathetic attempt to help us.

Ramona was different. She had zero agenda–when she asked a question, she truly listened. By getting me to open up and be real, she helped me uncover barriers that were holding me back. The image and memories of all those conversations with Ramona are burned into my mind. For 20+ years that has been the driving force behind me becoming a better listener. I want to impact others the way Ramona did with me.

I know I may not have even finished that first summer as a “punk, 19-year-old, know-it-all” had it not been for Ramona. She had an unconditional commitment to serving her teammates in anyway she could. Even if I had finished, I for sure would not have saved over $12K that summer. That money allowed me to go to college and then choose to return to the book field each summer. It ultimately paid 100% of my private university tuition over the years ahead. Not to mention the fact that Southwestern is the only company I’ve worked for in the 21 years since.

Think of the people who have influenced you greatest in your life. Did they do most of the talking or were they great listeners?

Most likely they had formed a habit of putting aside their need of “being heard.” They learned how to get others to open up through asking intentional questions. Then following up those questions with additional questions and so on…

In his incredible book, Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston discusses these six steps for making another person feel felt:

  1. Attach an emotion to what you think the other person is feeling, such as frustrated, angry, or afraid.
  2. Say, “I’m trying to get a sense of what you’re feeling and I think it is ____________(fill in the emotion). Is that correct? If it’s not, then just what are you feeling?” (Now remain quiet and wait for their response.)
  3. Once they give their answer, ask: “How _______ are you?” Again, give the person time to respond. Be prepared for a torrent of emotions. Allow them to let it all out.
  4. Next ask: “And the reason you are so _________ is because?” Let them vent.
  5. Then ask: “Tell me what needs to happen for that feeling to feel better?” Wait for their response.
  6. Finally ask: “What part can I play in making that happen? What part can you play in making that happen?”

The goal here is simply to help someone open up–then help (not tell) them to clearly define what needs to happen to move forward. Seeing if you can serve in any way to make it happen, while also helping them take ownership of their growth, is an important step.

What can you do today to become a better listener for those you care about?



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