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How to listening with Eloquence
by Steve Leveen

I make a game of seeing what gets people talking most enthusiastically; I hardly say a word and afterwards people say what a great conversationalist I am!"

That’s what my friend Gene Miller told me. He’s a business school professor these days after a long and amazingly successful career as a CEO for several companies and as an editor of Business Week. In our recently passed twentieth century, listening skills were put high on the list of abilities desirable, if not necessary, for professional success.

One of the century’s bestselling books was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Originally published in 1936, the book is still in bookstores today after selling more than 15 million copies. Chapter 4 is titled “An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist.” Carnegie tells his readers that the secret to being perceived as a good conversationalist is to be an attentive listener. “To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.”

Millions of Americans took the advice to heart, not only to be popular, but to persuade. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State for presidents Kennedy and Johnson, expressed the idea for many with his line, “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them.”

Yet by 1970, all the talk about listening was already a bit trite. Star television interviewer Barbara Walters published a book that year called How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. She wrote in her introduction, “I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener....when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more.” Instead, she advised, people should engage in real conversations fueled by genuine interest.

Walters was espousing what the psychologist Jerry Bell would later call higher-level listening. In recent years I was able to spend many days in his Bell Leadership classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he coaches business people. He describes three levels of listening. First you must make a deliberate decision to listen and then listen with as much energy as you use to talk. Make great eye contact, watch body language and tone of voice, play back the speaker’s own words to show you are hearing correctly, take notes, and so on. And this is just Level One listening. Only when you develop trust with enough time and energy can you move to Level Two (asking for more examples and more ideas to clarify what they are saying), and finally to Level Three, where through an honest exchange of ideas and recommendations, you achieve true “partnership listening.” The better you listen, the better you’ll understand what’s really going on and thereby be able to coach and lead more effectively.

Listening well can lead to popularity and can enhance your persuasion abilities; this can be fake and done to manipulate, or it can be genuine based on caring and curiosity. If your goal is to truly understand and to learn, then popularity and the ability to persuade others are merely side effects.

Near the end of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt published a book called You Learn by Living. “There is no human being from whom we cannot learn something if we are interested enough to dig deep,” she wrote. “There were great gaps in my knowledge....knowing my own deficiencies, I made a game of trying to make people talk about whatever they were interested in and learning as much as I could about their particular subject. This, I think, is one of the most effective and rewarding forms of education.”

To really embrace this practice and learn from listening, I think you have to believe that, as down-to-earth Will Rogers put it, “We’re all ignorant but in different subjects.”