The Skill that Separates

The Skill that Separates


Two accomplished lawyers are sitting at an A-list bar in New York. One is my friend’s lawyer, Tom, the other is Tom’s law partner, Kevin.

They’re having a leisurely drink, waiting for their table. A-list superstar US attorney David Boies, who argued the US government’s case against Microsoft, makes a beeline to the bar to greet Kevin, whom he knows from previous cases.

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Boies joins Tom and Kevin for a drink. A few minutes later, Kevin gets up to make a phone call outside.

Boies remains at the bar, talking to Tom for 30 minutes. “I’d never met Boies before,” Tom said to me later.

“He didn’t have to talk to me. I wasn’t bowled over by his intelligence, or his piercing questions, or his anecdotes. What impressed me was that when he asked a question, he waited for the answer. He not only listened, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

Tom’s words describe a single skill that separates the great from the near great. When Kevin disappeared, Boies stuck around and made a lasting positive impression on Tom. Boies wasn’t looking to score points.

In showing interest, asking questions, and listening for the answers without distraction, Boies was simply practising the one skill that has made him great at relating to people.

Learn to listen

I’m not sure why all of us don’t execute this interpersonal manoeuvre all the time. We’re certainly capable of doing so when it really matters to us.

If we’re on a sales call with a prospect who could make or break our year, we prepare by knowing something personal about the prospect. We ask questions designed to reveal his inclinations, and we scan his face for clues. The only difference between us and the super-successful is that they do this all the time.

It’s automatic. There’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy, and showing respect. It’s always on. So why don’t we do it? We forget. We get distracted. We don’t have the mental discipline to make it automatic.

90% of this skill is listening, which requires the discipline to concentrate. I’ve developed a simple exercise to test my clients’ listening skills. Close your eyes. Count slowly to 50 with one simple goal: Don’t let another thought intrude. Concentrate on maintaining the count.

Sounds simple, but more than half of my clients can’t do it. Somewhere around 20 or 30, nagging thoughts invade their brain. This may sound like a concentration test, but it’s really a listening exercise.

After all, if you can’t listen to yourself (someone you presumably like) as you count to 50, how will you ever be able to listen to another person?

Like any exercise, this drill exposes a weakness and helps us get stronger.

Test your new skill

Once you can complete the exercise without interruption, you’re ready for a test drive. Make your next interpersonal encounter – whether it’s with your spouse or a colleague or a stranger – an exercise in treating them like a million bucks.

Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences. Don’t say, “I knew that.” Don’t even agree with the other person. If he praises you, just say thank you. Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.”

Don’t let your eyes wander elsewhere while the other person is talking. Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking questions that show you’re paying attention, move the conversation forward, and require the person to talk (while you listen).

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Your only aim is to let the other person feel that they are important. If you can do that, you’ll uncover a glaring paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes.

You may feel dull as you listen quietly, but the other person will say, “What a great guy!” just as you would of anyone who made you feel like the most important person in the room.

In the spotlight

Are you merely mediocre or a business leader others want to emulate?

Marshall Goldsmith
Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and million-selling author of numerous books, including the New York times bestsellers, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There.