The Business Value of Listening

In 1993 (still the dark ages for technology), I was VP of sales for a patient education publisher in the San Francisco Bay area. We were an early adopter of sales automation software, and I was planning a new product launch that needed about $150,000 in enhancements to our system.

Rich, our new CFO, and I both worked for the president, who was conservative with investment dollars, a trait of our parent company as well. I had heard through the grapevine that he felt we needed a new general ledger system — and I knew that both initiatives would not get funded for the coming year.

I arrived for my morning meeting with Rich girded for battle. I had the business case and the budget in hand. Moreover, I felt I had the high ground because the product I was planning for would add about 15 to 20 percent to our top line the next year.

Rich came out of his office, greeted me quietly and invited me in. Before he came into the office he asked his assistant to hold his calls (yes, very “Mad Men” like. But remember, this was before mobile phones). He then turned off his computer and came around his desk to sit with me in the guest pull-up chairs. We sat shoulder to shoulder for the next 45 minutes going over the plan. Rich listened very intently, speaking almost exclusively to clarify a point or ask a question. When we were done, I was clear that Rich could thoroughly argue my case at our parent company or with the president. He got it. In fact, his thoughts improved the numbers and the plan. It was one of the most remarkable meetings of my career to date, which is why I can still recall it so clearly 20-plus years on.

The following year, we got a new general ledger system. Funding for my sales rollout was delayed until I could fund it out of new revenue. While I was disappointed about the delay, and the impact it had on early customers, I was able to let go of my unhappiness simply because I knew that Rich understood the plan completely. And the ROI of that meeting and the smoother implementation of the decision that followed were spectacular.

I have never since, except with my own coach, had the experience of being so fully and completely heard and understood.

There are reams of articles on listening, with approaches that vary widely. Most of what is required to listen, however, is to pay attention, remove distractions and remain fully present for the work in front of us. But really paying attention is hard work, especially with mobile phones and tablets at hand for every meeting. I am an early adopter of such technology, so I wouldn’t take the Luddite-like position that tech has no place in a meeting. But there are times that paying attention — full and complete attention — has a huge ROI for both your company and the relationship being attended to.

Want proof? Spend five minutes reliving a time that you felt completely heard and understood. It might have been with an old boss or mentor, with a spouse or loved one or with a coach or therapist. Never mind about the content of the conversation. Remember and relive how you felt. Now imagine that problem customer, challenging staff member, thorny regulator or difficult vendor and how his behavior could shift if he felt that you truly understood him. Imagine how much more you would know about a candidate interviewing for a key position if you could more fully understand who she is. Better yet, imagine how effective that new hire could be if he or she had the ability to listen that well to others.

There are some developable capacities for deepening listening skills. Most take a lot of practice to master and are hard to sustain for very long. This month is about the business case for developing a culture and capacity for listening. I will delve into what masters in the art know next month.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 11, 2015.