Friday, May 4, 2012

On Not Turning a Deaf Ear

Dear Mackenzie,

Listen up.

I’m about to give you what may well be the best practical advice you’ll ever get. 

I’m not suggesting that you can’t or won’t succeed if you don’t follow it.  I am suggesting that if you follow what I’m about to tell you to the letter, you will be simply amazed at how people will flock to you in business and in life. I learned this lesson myself quite by accident and it’s made me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better business executive.  

If negotiating for a living has taught me anything at all, it’s that most people don’t listen during a conversation.  It’s not that people are rude or disinterested by nature.  It’s rather that most people are scared, and insecure, and a little self obsessed.

I’ll give you a few examples just to set the table.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but most people are terrible with names. I’m convinced this is because when two people are introduced to each other, subconsciously each is more likely to listen for their own name than the name of the person to whom they are being introduced. The reason why two seconds later most people can’t remember the other person’s name is that they never actually listen for it in the first place.

Here’s another one.  The last time you got in fight with a friend or a loved one, were you actually listening while they told you what was causing their anger and hurt?  Or were you using the time that the other person was talking to formulate in your own head what you were going to say next? 

Active listening is the great competitive advantage in life, my sweet daughter. Very few people actually do it, especially in stressful situations. If you can actively listen to what someone is saying to you when the chips are down you’ll be way ahead of the game. It allows you to stay in the moment and to use real time information in every context.

People are desperate to be heard. It’s hard-wired into the human condition. I have found that outside of politics, people usually don’t even care whether or not you agree with them.  What they do care about is whether or not you hear and really understand what they are trying to communicate to you.

Many, many years ago I attended a weekend therapy seminar with a very pretty friend.  I grudgingly admit that I was far less interested in growing as a human being than I was in spending time with this particular person. Yet in spite of my selfish intentions, the weekend changed my life forever.

At some point during the seminar, the moderator had us all do a mirroring exercise.  Everyone was paired up and told to “role play” the thing they most wanted to say to someone who had injured them emotionally.  So for example, I could pretend to talk to an old girlfriend. If I said, “Sally, you hurt me when you told me we could never have a future together and you didn’t care”, the person with whom I was partnered for the exercise would pretend to be Sally and would say, “what I hear you saying is” and then mirror my sentence exactly. If they got it even slightly wrong, I would re-state what I’d just said until they could mirror it verbatim.

Once it was established that my words and feelings had been perfectly mirrored, the other person would say the words “that makes all the sense in the world to me”, followed immediately by “if I were in your situation I would feel the same way.”  That’s it.  Not a single variation. 

Under the watchful eye of the moderator, the exercise went on for the better part of an afternoon. People were crying, laughing, yelling, and hugging as the cathartic exercise played out over and over. It was as if these were the most profound words anyone had ever spoken. I couldn’t believe it.

Now at the time I was a brash, arrogant young guy who thought he knew everything.  So at the break, I went up to the moderator and told him that with all due respect the exercise was bogus.  I explained that while rote regurgitation of another’s words might work in an artificial therapy environment like this one, it would never work in the real world.

No doubt the moderator had been challenged like this in the past, because he smiled benignly and made me the following offer.  He suggested that for the next thirty days I use the technique in my business and personal life exactly as we had done it that day. He said if I didn’t get results to my complete satisfaction, he would refund my money no questions asked.  Who could pass up an offer like that?

The first few times I tried it I was awkward and embarrassed, certain that someone would call me on my “bullshit”, or ask me if I was on drugs, or worse. And yet to my utter amazement, the more I mirrored what people were saying to me; and the more I acknowledged that what they were saying made sense to me; and the more I suggested that in their position I might feel the same way, the more I got the results I wanted personally and professionally. I became the beneficiary of my active listening, and I was giddy with delight. It was like a parlor tick.

Needless to say I never called for my money back, and I’ve never looked back.  The funny part, Mackenzie, is that if you do this consistently over time, you’ll learn that active listening isn’t a parlor trick at all. It’s wonderfully real. Actually listening to people will deepen your enjoyment and appreciation of them.  The more you listen to people and mirror them, the more genuinely interested you’ll be in them.  And they in you.

Imagine that.

All my everlasting love,



  1. I'm not just saying this Norm- this is probably the best advice you can give someone. It's true on many levels- it's a commentary on our selves (as in egos), our society, what we are taught and what deep down we really want. No one listens.

    You can even diffuse and aggressive person with this technique. I learned it from a Dr. friend of mine- he called it "reflecting". It works.

    1. I agree Brian. So true. Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. PLease feel free to re-post, share, etc.

  2. This is great advice. Listening is not only hard, it is sometimes impossible. There are land mines in emotionally charged speech, things that once heard cause an explosion of thoughts and feeling so that one is physically incapable of hearing further. For this reason, we are often least able to listen to the one's closest to us.

    In my interactions with my daughter, I am not afraid to invoke a do-over on a topic when I'm not sure I listened carefully enough because of hot button words that she used (intentionally or not). I am convinced that is the secret of our closeness. We listen to each other.

  3. Thanks Charles. The do-over is a great thought!