The Importance of Listening

When I was fairly young, my family picked up roots and moved from New Jersey to Ohio. As a six-year-old, it was quite a culture shock. I remember how much more slowly people talked in the great Mid-West, how polite they were, and how they had funny names for things, such as calling soda by the name “pop.”

Those half-dozen years in the Garden State were enough to indoctrinate me to the speaking habits of the region, and I remember in our new home fumbling with the fact that I spoke at a quicker rate than my classmates and the neighborhood kids. It wasn’t that they were slow, but rather that they just talked that way. Looking back, I realize that I probably cut off some conversations during pauses, because the delay between words was long enough that it seemed to signal a completed thought.

Seven years later, we found ourselves packing everything up and moving back to central Jersey, close again to our extended family and to a new business that my father had started up with some others in his industry. Seven years in the land of fields of corn and dairy, of Cincinnati Reds and riverboats, and I picked up some of the customs of my midwestern environment.

Returning to New Jersey meant experiencing a culture shock in reverse, where my classmates and neighbors talked much quicker than I did, and interrupted me when I talked. It wasn’t that I was slow, but rather that I just talked that way. I knew better than to ask for “pop” at the local pizzeria, cause they more likely might have tried to help me find my dad than giving me a Soda.

That’s part of the fun, and part of the challenge of traveling to new places, understanding that there are subtle differences in how we speak, how we refer to things, and it makes listening and understanding a challenge sometimes. It’s even more of a challenge interacting with people in other parts of the world, who may share a language with us, but possess a very different set of cultural references.

I was thinking about those days when we lived in Ohio, and how we would drive back to New Jersey during the summers and winters to visit Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles and cousins and friends. On one trip, we stopped halfway in Pennsylvania to visit one of my father’s potential clients at an old toy factory.

He went inside the plant and talked with them for what seemed like hours at the time. When he came out, and we resumed our journey to New Jersey, he told us that they had told him of their plans for a new toy, and wanted to know if one of the industrial machines his company made could help them manufacture one of the parts for the toy. He suggested to them that they make the whole toy using one of his machines (or at least most of it), and they listened.

A few weeks before Christmas that year, a big delivery truck pulled up to our house, and a huge box was unloaded and delivered to our door. Inside was a thank you consisting of almost every toy that Pennsylvania company we had visited had made.

The Big Wheel went on to become one of the most popular toys in the United States for more than a decade. It wouldn’t have been the same if only the tires were made out of plastic.

There can be a value to listening, to being aware of cultural and personal differences in communication styles, to taking feedback from potential customers and vendors and others. That value can mean innovation in business, or in making the new kid feel welcome in the neighborhood.

Are you listening?

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37 thoughts on “The Importance of Listening”

  1. I was just a little too old for the Big Wheel… but the older I get the more I believe in listening and the easier it gets. I’m making more sales now and it’s definitely a big part of my approach. Regards – Mal

  2. Wow! The Big Wheel. Hadn’t thought about that one in ages. The sound effects from the “rocks” in the back wheels made that one awesome plastic road hog! Hit the nail on the head with this one. Listening is vital. I’ve tuned people out selectively for so long…it’s hard to get back in the habit.

  3. Hi Mal,

    Same here on the Big Wheel, but my younger brother fit into one well, and was inseparable from his for a couple of years. Listening, opening up your ears, and your mind, is the first step to understanding. It does make a difference, in business, and in everything you do.

  4. Hi Roschelle,

    My brother found a way to get his big wheel to slide sideways amazing distances – good thing they were so close to the ground or he probably would have wiped out a few times. Tuning people out can be harmful – sometimes the words themselves aren’t the message, and missing the actual message can hurt rather than help.

  5. This made me think back to my first sales job. I studied up on our company and its products and went out on my first sales call accompanied by our top salesman. I was armed and ready to go! I blasted the prospect with 30 minutes of rapid fire info. We left without the sale. After, the old pro told me something very valuable: Sales isn’t about fast talking, it’s about LISTENING. I’ve used that advise a thousand times in a thousand different life situations. Listening shows you care. It also helps you pick up on a persons need! Thanks for the read. enjoyed it!

  6. I try to stress to all of my sales staff that if you listen close enough you will find the true reason the client wants to buy our product and services.

  7. Hey Bill,

    You are right that listening sometimes can be of great help.

    Your story explains it all and this is a wonderful fact that we all must be aware of.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

  8. Very timely message, Bill, and well-written at that. I was just lamenting the other day about how frustrating it is to talk to people with smartphones and iPhones. Inevitably their eyes wonder down to their palm, where they start checking messages or looking up something on a website, while you’re in the middle of a conversation with them. And they’re completely unaware of how disrespectful they’re being at the time. It seems that the more “connected” we become, the less capable we are of really connecting with others through active and attentive listening.

  9. I agree with tgrimsley’s thoughts. I was called by a salesperson the other day and after we chatted and realized the product wasn’t for me, she listened to every point I explained. I got the impression that she understood and wasn’t trying to trick me. At that point we made an agreement to check back with each other in a few months and see if we can work out a deal. Listening consistently will eventually payoff.

  10. Bill, this was an excellent post. I grew up in a small town where everyone listened. Then I moved to Phoenix at 8 where everyone talked a lot faster and wanted to voice their thoughts instead of listening to others. I started growing accustomed to this and caught myself in the past few months cutting people off, and I have had to realize that their is value in listening and not interrupting. I find myself still apologizing and telling people to continue what they were saying, and it is a good quality to try to always respect others and listen. One of the things I tell my sales people to really focus on is listening to the clients needs and asking questions to help develop strategies that cater to their needs. Once we really started doing this, our conversions from inquiries to customers dramatically increased at a substantial rate. Once again, great story.

  11. Nice post I can relate to coming from a different culture and having live in France then finally here in the USA. It’s always a ood experience discovering the differences and the diversity which can only enrich us. The wise listen more than he talks.

  12. Hi Bill,

    coming here for the first time and finding this post was lovely. It actually made me a little nostalgic. as a kid, even traveled a lot and after every two years, I was at a new place, with different kind of people with different cultural habits as well. You sure were right in telling that it “typed itself”

  13. Hi roofpro44,

    I found listening to be the most important skill I developed when I got out of school and found myself supervising about 20 people. There were many times when listening to a simple suggestion, or exploring some ideas with the people I supervised led to ways to make all of our work easier, and smarter. Sometimes those ideas came from people I supervised, and sometimes they came from the clients and vendors and other people outside of the Department I worked in. When people in that Department realized that they were being listened to, and that it made a difference, it also helped everyone’s morale tremendously.

  14. Hi tgrimsley,

    I agree completely. Without that knowledge of what your clients objectives are, you may find it impossible to deliver the value they are looking for.

  15. Hi Ravi,

    Thank you for your kind words. It’s tempting and a terrible trap to think that good communication begins and ends with being able to present yourself well. That’s true in conversations, and it’s true on web sites as well – some adopt an approach where they broadcast what they do, and what they offer, without opening the possibility of interaction with the people they are communicating with.

  16. Hi Keith,

    I’ve seen that kind of disconnect as well, where people don’t engage in actual conversations because their attention is elsewhere. I wonder sometimes if IPhones or Smart phones are only an external manifestation of that – it’s just as likely that someone you’re having a conversation with, without a browser in hand may be actively engaged in thoughts of something going on somewhere else as well. :)

  17. Hi Case,

    Nice example. I confess, I paid a lot of attention to my father and his business interactions when I was growing up. I remember someone calling him about a product they were trying to develop, and he told the caller that the machines his company made weren’t the best for what they were trying to do. He gave them the phone number of one of his competitors who had a product line that could handle their project. His competitor made the sale, but he earned the caller’s trust – they called him many times after that, and there were times where it made sense for them to work together.

  18. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for sharing your experience – it’s some experience going through something like that when you’re young.

    Some of those lessons didn’t kick in for me completely until returning to New Jersey, and trying to cope with the change in culture in reverse, but they’ve stuck with me. Asking questions not only allows you to understand what someone is actually trying to convey, but it also shows them that you are interested, and that you will listen in the future.

  19. Hi buzz,

    The differences and the diversity can be confusing as well, especially when they are fairly pronounced. Understanding begins with listening.

  20. Hi Mohsin,

    Thank you. We moved a few times when I lived in New Jersey the first time, and then in Ohio. It wasn’t easy. Readusting to schools, saying good bye to friends, learning about new neighborhoods and customs and slang; those kinds of changes can be tough on kids. Fortunately, we can learn from those kinds of experiences as well. :)

  21. Bill,

    That was a great story. In our business, we depend on careful and active listening because we manufacture such a wide variety of products. Sometime receiving a technical specification is adequate, but we always like to speak with our prospect and clients to ensure we’re providing the best tool for the job. After all, we want to be more than just “adequate.”

    Ultimately, people need to take time to consider others. Generally, those cultural differences can be overcome as a result.

  22. Hi Dena,

    I know that some businesses that provide services really like people to contact them by phone as well, even if their websites contain a fair amount of information. Making sure that someone has the right product, or the right service, can really make a difference. Great customer service goes beyond responding quickly when there might be a problem – it also means making sure that people get what they want and what they need when its available, and being pointed in the right direction when it isn’t. Thank you for your example of how listening makes a difference for your business.

  23. Interesting personal story. Reminds me of a conversation I had 2 months ago in Miami with a Danish couple who were in the US for the first time. We talked over drinks for over an hour and it required much effort to communicate with their broken English, but it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.

  24. Hi People Finder

    That sounds like a great conversation.

    One of the most enjoyable moments I had at a search conference was sitting around a lunch table with about 8 people from a number of countries discussing differences in internet marketing based upon cultural differences. We ended up missing the round of sessions after lunch because we were actually learning a lot from the conversation. It would be great to have more moments like that outside of conferences, but really expensive for people to come from places like Ireland and Australia for lunch.

  25. Wow!! It was nice to know that still there are people who speak slowly, steadily. Yes people in Ohio are very friendly and helpful. They always welcome you with he best behavior and that is what i like so much about the Mid-west states

  26. Bill,
    Great post – I love these types of articles.
    In reference to the “slower speaking” Midwest, there have been studies which show people who speak more slowly, are perceived as being more intelligent. Plus, it makes it more engaging and easier for the “listener” i.e. speaking slowly is easier to listen to.
    But what a great story – I remember my first Big Wheel!

  27. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks. I’ve been watching more and more presentations online at places like TED, and one of the fascinating aspects of seeing so many good speakers and presenters isn’t just in the content that they discuss, but the ways that they tell us about it. Thinking back at some I’ve seen, I’ve been thoroughly engaged by speakers who talk slowly as much as by those who present lots of words in small amounts of time.

    I was just a little too big for a big wheel, but I remember some of the things I tried to do on my bicycle – maybe they should have made a bigger version of the big wheel – it probably would have been safer. :)

  28. My wife and I spent 3 months honyemooning in Canada (We are from Australia) and it was so interesting seeing the different ways that we said things. Your pop/soda comment made me remember the amount of times I laughed when the Canadians asked if I wanted a ‘pop’!

  29. Hi Tom,

    Great story – thanks for sharing. That’s one of the interesting things about traveling – little things that we often take for granted may be completely different somewhere else.

  30. Interesting! I totally agree with you. Great post. I remembered my mom who always said that listening is a powerful tool to have a good future. It makes a lot of sense. Thank you!

  31. Thank you for talking about listening Bill. I’ve found it to be one of the most valuable skills we can practice to learn about others, gather information and build relationships. When we listen to others we show we care and build rapport and trust as well. Listening takes a little practice but, once mastered, it benefits everyone involved and makes us more effective people.

  32. Great article – am just doing some training for our DS sales team on the power of hushing up and hearing thier customers/potential recruits. Reference to pop took me right back to living in the UK – we left six years ago and moved to Ireland (only a short distance but might as well have been other side of the world as its a real culture shock). I asked for a can of pop in the chippy and just got looks of total amazement. so i tried the generic brand with some pointing – ‘r whites lemonade’ ‘ah’ came the reply ‘you mean a mineral’…seriously i thought i was going to get a can of krytonite ;-)

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