Listen, Question, Observe, Repeat

(My column as it appeared in Upmarket magazine week of Feb. 26th)

As I move along through life I am amazed at how much I know now, and just how stupid I was a few weeks ago. The trick in life and business is of course to grow and learn. However I am more often than not astonished at how many people assume they have the answers to every question asked on any subject no matter whom they’re talking to. If it were a discussion on health issues they start quoting terms so full of jargon I’d notice a real Doctor looking up terms on his smart phone to follow along. Another thing I see so many do is the proverbial “judge a book by its cover.” If someone doesn’t look the way they think someone should look, well then, they must not be! Just gives them one more reason to keep talking.

One of the greatest things I learned early on is you can’t judge a book by its cover nor learn by talking. You have to listen, and listen carefully. If you feel the need to speak it should be to ask a question. Then what is just as important but many forget is to observe. Do the words, actions, statements, or other things make sense? An example might be: Listening to the person whom is bragging about constantly attending lavish formal dinners yet observing they’re holding their knife and fork as if they are to enter mortal combat, or their boasting about their wealth or jawing on about the car they drive. Are they really what they claim to be? Just because everyone in a room is driving brand new luxury cars, the richest person in the building might be the one driving the oldest. And you’ll never find out unless during a conversation you ask questions, listen, or observe. Never ask questions that set up an opportunity for you to answer. (Which by the way so many in business do.)  People often prejudge or qualify a person by the way they’re dressed or a myriad of other factors only to find themselves embarrassed or worse insulting. True listening is the only moderator I know of that can help one avoid these situations. In business it’s an imperative skill that must always be honed. There is no substitute.

Years back I was living in Texas with family after moving from the Northeast. One day I was with my Uncle and he was discussing business to a gentleman by the name of Junior. He was a scruffy looking older man in dusty jeans, worn boots, and driving quite an old pick up. I paid no attention to the conversation but when it was finished I asked my Uncle, “Who was that guy a hired hand?” He went on to tell me he was a very wealthy man who buys and sells oil equipment as a hobby. His “hobby” usually means making deals to buy the equipment for cash anywhere from $500K to a few million dollars depending. I never looked at someone wearing an Armani suit in a Beemer the same way again.

So many of us want to be the center of attention in all situations. In business it can cost you dearly. Never assume your potential client doesn’t have the resources or the capacity to possibly be your greatest client. You’ll only find out by listening, questioning, and observing. I used the term honed earlier because it’s a skill that can dull on you if you are not constantly aware. How do I know this?

A few years back I was at one of the premier recording studios in the country. The studio is actually on a working horse farm. As my friend who was recording there was showing me the grounds we were approached by this gentleman in jeans, a plaid shirt, and looked a little scruffy. He had a short conversation with my friend and when it was through we started walking about once again. I asked him “Who was that guy, one of the stable hands?” He responded, “No Mark, that’s Mick Jagger’s manager.”

© 2012 Mark St.Cyr