Listening to others is one of the most important skills we can acquire in this lifetime. I do not mean listening just so we know how to respond, but truly listening so the person speaking feels heard and understood. Listening is a selfless act—you have to momentarily let go of what you want so you can help someone else get what he or she wants.
When people speak, they usually want to be heard and understood. People feel empowered when others listen to them. By being a good listener you earn respect, become highly valued, and are seen as a leader. Others will know they can count on you.
“That’s cool and all, but what does this have to do with making money?” someone may ask. Well, actually, this has a lot to with making money. In a world of instant connectivity and many possibilities, too many people feel overwhelmed and alone because we don’t listen to each other very well, sometimes not at all.
People who learn to listen can more easily establish themselves as leaders—they can build a kind of trust that can only be earned. The more you’re trusted—the more you allow others to feel understood—the better leader you will become and the more money you will make.
I spoke with Marian Wright Edelman, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s close friends and lawyers, and I was shocked when she told me Dr. King inspired people to trust in his vision by listening. “Really? It wasn’t his speaking abilities?” I asked, one winter afternoon in Washington, DC. “Absolutely,” she said. “But he also had a willingness to lend his ear and listen to other people for hours. People felt truly heard, which made them feel powerful. They trusted him. He learned how to lead by listening and learning how others felt.”
I almost couldn’t believe that someone so close to Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest leaders who ever lived, was saying that he empowered people by listening to them.
This is a competitive world. Many of us want to be leaders. We want to be valuable. Thousands of books offer insights about what might help us achieve success. We pay big money for seminars to learn these secrets. Companies budget for motivational speakers and management gurus to teach them how to lead better. Many academics and other writers comment on the qualities of successful people, trying to understand what led to their achievements.
During interviews, some tycoons and leaders even demonstrate that they don’t know the key to their own success—they adopt clichés and appear less than introspective about themselves. Could it be that we’ve all missed the mark when it comes to what effective leadership entails? Have we overlooked how to truly empower others and how to inspire groups of people toward a common objective?
It’s romantic to think that a powerful presence is a matter of how you look and how you project your voice and that image. It’s glamorous to think that a leader is the most intelligent or charismatic person in the room. It’s hopeful to believe that success is equated with doglike persistence and the tenacity to go after anything you want until you achieve it.
But history shows us that Martin Luther King Jr. became one of the most powerful and impactful human beings to walk the face of the earth by being a great listener.
We’ve developed a culture that is too selfish and has too short an attention span to bother to look people in the eyes, listen, and connect. People in workplaces, stores, sidewalks—in fact, just about anyplace you go in the twenty-first century—have lost the ability to listen with the intention of hearing. We listen to respond. We may be silent, so it seems like we’re listening, but we’re actually thinking about what to say in response, or something totally unrelated, or about how we can graciously end the conversation as quickly as possible.
Have you ever noticed how much joy it sparks when you stop at the cash register or in the hallway long enough to have a genuine interaction with someone passing by? It’s awesome. You usually walk away feeling happy. And the other person walks away feeling happy too. By doing something as simple as setting the intention of becoming a more conscious listener, you begin to spark joy in nearly every experience.
I’m often amazed when I get the tour of corporate offices before I am hired to speak. The executives complain about lack of leadership, inspiration, and teamwork. “Do you have any suggestions?” they often ask. “Yes, a good first step would be to get everyone to stop walking with their heads down, and get them to actually look and listen to each other. Maybe the pillars of your business shouldn’t be efficiency and productivity but listening and caring. Maybe then people would feel valued and empowered. Maybe then people would be inspired to work with others,” I reply.
The same is true in friendship or with colleagues in workplace relationships. Those who make the effort to listen and connect find that people not only trust them more but are also inspired by them. They begin to want to help and show up every day because they feel valued. They know that if they have something to say, they will be heard. We value leaders who listen because it’s much easier for us to respect someone who makes us feel understood.
Think about it. If someone on the street—someone you don’t know—asks you for a favor, you will probably tell him to leave you alone. If an acquaintance wants your time or help, you might hesitate, wondering what he has done for you, if you trust him, or if you feel respected by him. You might end up helping him even if you don’t feel heard and respected. And even if you don’t trust him, you still might perform the favor, but halfheartedly. You won’t be invested in it. And if you do feel invested, it’s might be because you feel obligated to be a good person.
However, when someone you really respect and trust comes to you, someone who you know listens to you, appreciates your feedback, and genuinely cares about you as a human being—when that person asks for a favor, things are different. You want to help her and make her happy. You are much more likely to help champion her vision. You are much more willing to serve and take risks. You are motivated to do good work. You want to say yes. Why?
Because you trust her. She cares about you, and you know that she will listen to you if you have a concern. You know she will not neglect you. You are confident she will be there for you if and when you need an ear or a hand. President Woodrow Wilson once said, “The ear of a leader must ring with the voices of the people.” I couldn’t agree more.
Anyone, regardless of his or her title in the workplace or the world, can become a leader by applying this simple principle. People are inspired and motivated by those who make them feel like their voice matters. We don’t necessarily need to acquire new skills or to get a promotion to become a world-class leader. We need to reestablish the lost art of selfless listening—we must make sure people are heard once again.