Ever wonder why your company gets replaced by a competitor? Or why you can’t get the respect of your direct reports? Or when there’s a promotion, you don’t get the nod? Ever wonder why you didn’t make the sale?
As strange as it may seem, it could have something to do with you. Maybe you just aren’t a giver. You think of yourself first. You’re looking for what you can get out of your position, the sale, a relationship, a connection, a task. And if it doesn’t appear you’ll benefit, you just don’t make the effort. Big mistake.
A universal law states that “you reap what you sow.” We call it reciprocity. What you give, you get–either positive or negative. For instance, you smile at me and I’m more apt to smile back. You’re friendly with me and I’m friendly back. You appreciate me and I’m more open to appreciate you. In other words, you give me a “gift” and I give you one back. But you notice in each of these simple positive behaviors, somebody had to give first.
In the workplace it works the same way. In fact, if genuine, there’s one positive behavior that will pay off in spades, allowing you to double or triple or quadruple your relationship currency like nothing else will. This one behavior can clear up misunderstandings, diffuse conflict, help you gain commitment from people who do not agree with you, help you get promoted, and make a sale. What is it? Listening with both the head and the heart.
Allow me to illustrate.
Some years ago a large philanthropic organization called and asked me to keynote their national conference in Denver and speak on the power of listening. I agreed, with the proviso that I could speak to someone who understood philanthropy from the inside out–a way for me to get a thorough understanding of their organization and how they go about getting their donors.
Karen, a busy consultant who worked extensively with non-profits helping with donor recruitment, was on the list provided.
In conversation with Karen, I asked for a powerful example of a time she listened deeply to a prospective donor and it pay off handsomely. Without skipping a beat, she responded, “Absolutely.” It seems she had once been called by a university president who asked her to accompany him to the home of a prospective donor, a woman who had contacted him to say that she had a large sum of money she wanted to donate to the university. He had happily agreed to meet the prospective donor in her home, but had come away empty handed on three occasions.
Baffled by the woman’s behavior, he asked Karen to accompany him on his next visit with the woman. He thought perhaps Karen could identify the woman’s hesitation to fulfill on her desire to give.
Karen said, “We had no more than entered the woman’s home and sat down, when she started telling us about her recently deceased sister who had taught piano part time for the university. As if on cue, the university president sought to change the subject. I gently redirected the conversation to the woman’s sister. ‘Before we move on, I’m curious as to what happened to your sister?'”
According to Karen, the woman’s sister had lived with an abusive husband for over twenty years in spite of numerous unsuccessful attempts to get her sister to leave her abuser.
Karen continued her story, “I listened closely as she shared how her sister had been happiest when playing her piano or teaching at the university. I empathized with her pain and agony and her feelings of helplessness when she told about being at wits end trying to move her sister out of a bad situation. I sensed the despair she felt when every attempt ended in failure. I listened. I listened. I listened. I let her know that I knew what she was feeling and why she felt as she did. And when I knew that this woman felt totally heard, totally understood, totally appreciated, I knew that it was time for me to step in and offer a suggestion. I simply said to the woman, ‘Perhaps a music scholarship in your sister’s name would be the perfect fit for your gift to the university.'”
At that, the woman practically leapt from her chair. “Oh, that would be perfect! My sister would love that!” The woman then disappeared into the back room and came out a couple minutes later with the first of what would be several checks made out to the university for $100,000.
When they left the donor’s home that day, the university president said in a voice barely audible, “She’s tried to tell me that story several times, but I’m not comfortable with emotions, so every time, I’ve changed the subject. All this time I’ve been trying to convince this woman to give to biological research.”
Robert Conklin, author of How to Get People to Do Things, said, “If you help others get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” And what is it that people want? William James, Father of American Psychology, said it best when he said, “Every human being, from hardened criminal to newborn baby, has a need to be recognized, respected and validated.” And there is no better way to satisfy that basic human need than to take the time to truly listen, something that Karen clearly understood.
La June Tabron, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, also recognizes the need to listen and the importance in being heard. One of twelve women leaders I interviewed for my upcoming book, The Unstoppables – 12 Women Leaders’ Journey to the Top, La June told me of a time when she was controller for the organization. One of her most important jobs was to complete the tax return for the organization. One year the tax return became increasingly complicated because her boss and her boss’s boss had changed all the internal structures in the organization. This made the tax return process longer than normal because they had to re-map all the data. Then one day, out of the blue, she was taken into a room with no prior notice and told by her boss’s boss, “You haven’t finished the tax return yet. This is a problem, and you’re going to miss the deadline.” The deadline had not yet come, and La June had a plan in place to meet the deadline.
La June had never been asked what she was working on, and had not been spoken to once before that meeting. Had it not been for the encouragement of Norm Brown, foundation president at the time, she’d have quit. But she decided to stay to complete the return in time to file as planned. She then experienced the final insult: her bosses wouldn’t file the return because they didn’t trust that it had been done correctly.
She often tells this story to let others know how she felt about not being heard, not being consulted, and not being trusted. She stated, “I turned all that around by staying and helping build a platform so that others can feel more heard and respected. I always know that in a personnel issue there are two or three stories behind the story that you hear. I try to dig deeply enough so that we are not perpetuating the kind of behavior I experienced. And that means building relationships, talking to people, getting people to be comfortable telling you what’s on their mind—and that’s the kind of environment that I’m trying to create that I know is necessary.”
La June, like all effective leaders, understands the importance of relationship currency. Relationship is the bedrock of leadership (and fundamental to sales success), and listening with acceptance (not necessarily agreement) is key to building relationship. You listen to me and I’ll listen to you. You honor and respect me, and I’ll honor and respect you. You help me get what I want (respect, recognition and appreciation), and I’ll help you get what you want.
Relationship based on genuine understanding and acceptance is not only a gift you give others, but ultimately, a gift you give your organization, your stakeholders, your customers, and…yourself.
Do you intentionally create relationship currency?
Be your own best coach. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I care about people for their sake, not just because I want something from them?
- Do I unconditionally support others just as they are?
- Do I give of myself to others without expecting in return?
- If I were to zero in on one area to become more of a giver, what area would that be?
- If I were to take the time to listen deeply to just one person, consistently, who would I be willing to make a commitment to listen to? What would I need to do to make it a habit to listen? How would I keep track of my behavior?
Take your cue from those who succinctly express the importance of listening.
Woodrow Wilson: “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.”
Phillip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield: “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.”
And finally, my favorite by Max De Pree, former president and CEO, Herman Miller Corp.:
“In some South Pacific cultures, a speaker holds a conch shell as a symbol of temporary position of authority. Leaders must understand who holds the conch—that is, who should be listened to and when.”
What’s been your experience? Comments are welcome.
(c) 2015 Mary Jane Mapes All rights reserved.