Recently I spoke to the Rotary Club in Clemson, SC, at the invitation of a lifelong friend from my hometown of Columbia, Mississippi, Dr. Jim Woods.
As a retired orthodontist, Jim enjoys using his newly created free time to serve as a volunteer for worthwhile organizations in his community. He told me that he learned something valuable about communication during my Rotary speech, which he applied with highly satisfactory results a few days later at another group’s planning session.
My Rotary speech focused on three essential steps for becoming a highly effective communicator: using clear language, making the most of that unique instrument known as your voice, and listening intently and non-judgmentally.
Later in the week, Jim participated in a second group session, geared to explain a fund raising campaign to Board members of a charity seeking $20 million in gifts. To expose the members to various viewpoints small groups circulated around the room until they heard presentations from six discussion leaders. Jim was one of those leaders.
To keep the group moving, the Board chairperson announced, “These will be twelve-minute breakouts. Each time, I will announce the ten-minute mark, so you can start winding up your interaction.”
When the first group came to Jim’s table, he launched into his outline of the capital campaign’s plan, detailing where the gifts would come from and how the Board would allocate them. During his fast-paced delivery, the Board chair announced: “Ten minutes gone, wrap it up in two minutes.” Jim decided he’d better talk even faster to cover all he wanted to say.
Yet before he resumed speaking, an attorney friend sitting beside him tapped him on the arm and asked: “Jim, I’ve got a question: Don’t you want our input? We’ve got some questions and probably some good ideas we want to share with you.”
Instantly, Jim realized that his monologue had dominated the allotted time. A bit red-faced, he answered: “Why of course, you’re right. I’ll be quiet for the next two minutes. Please pardon my misstep as a leader, and tell us your thoughts.”
When the seven people starting contributing their ideas, a fresh stream of energy began to flow around the table. Jim felt the change, and so did the others.
At the twelve-minute mark, Jim’s first group left and the second arrived. This time, Jim announced at the outset why he was altering his initial format: “I’ll begin by telling you what happened at my Rotary club meeting on Monday. Sometimes I don’t remember what our weekly guest speaker said, but this time his message stuck with me, especially when he talked about listening as one of our most powerful communication skills, yet also one of our most neglected skills. Using several brief stories, he illustrated that keen listeners learn far more—and even contribute far more—than great speakers. He challenged us to reduce our talking time and increase our listening time, both in conversations and in meetings.”
Jim admitted further, “With my first group today, I forgot that advice. I talked the entire ten minutes before we got the ten-minute signal. Then one of my friends asked me, quite politely, if I would welcome comments and questions. That jarred me. I acknowledged that I had prevented input by everyone else because I had failed to listen. So in this session and the following ones, I am going to revise my approach. I will give my overview of the campaign quickly in the first two minutes. Then the next ten minutes are yours. This will give us a chance to hear questions, objections, suggestions, and campaign endorsements that we’d miss if I did all the talking. So get set to jump in two minutes from now with what you’re thinking about this multimillion dollar campaign.”
That session, and the ones following, fostered lively, frank, and creative analysis of the campaign. Jim sensed what the change from monologue to dialogue had accomplished in the group’s mood, too. He reported, “I could feel that they felt valued and appreciated.”
A couple of days later, Jim called me tell me how my tips about listening had revolutionized his style as a moderator—and how rewarding the results were. Jim said, “Maybe you wonder if audience members ever follow the advice you give when you speak. Well, I can assure you that at least one person—me—tried what you recommended on Monday. And I guarantee, the change in the group’s response was so magical that I have overcome my tendency to do all the talking when I give a presentation. I’m going to remember, and act on, that advice you gave from Stephen Covey: ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’”
Clearly, the lesson Jim learned about listening brought a permanent improvement in his communication. So put the power of listening to the test, as he did. The results will amaze you, and all those you lead.
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