For 50 years, I’ve been working with leaders. The first 25 years, I spent with monastic leaders: monks and priests and bishops and cardinals, and the pope in Rome. The second 25, I spent with business leaders: supervisors, directors, vice presidents, presidents and chairmen of the board. Some of them were just bosses. But some of them were truly great leaders who knew the art of listening.
Dr. John Turner was the best “listener” I ever met. He had an office in Bechtel’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco. He was the “company shrink.” He was tall and slender with a white goatee that he’d stroke with his firm right hand while he listened. His blue eyes were wide open, and even when he looked away, you knew he was looking at you.
When I entered his office, he pulled away from his desk and sat facing me. The phone rang; he let it ring. A knock on his door; he didn’t answer. There was nobody in the world at that moment except Dr. Turner and me. He was totally present. To me. Turner didn’t give advice; he asked questions, and then listened for the answers. You can do that too. You don’t have to be a trained psychiatrist. Have you ever found yourself talking to your own boss, and he’s not there anymore? Oh, he’s present, physically; he’s still sitting in his chair, but mentally, he’s miles away.
That happened to me sometimes when I was trying to talk to my 6-year-old grandson, Austin. I had to lean down and shout: “Earth to Austin.” How many times have people felt like cupping their hands into a megaphone and shouting: “Earth to you”?
What a joy it is when your own boss has learned the secret. The minute you walk into her office, she pulls away from her desk and her phone and her computer and all the important papers in front of her. She sits down in front of you, and listens as if you were the only person in her world. Are you like this?
Or, are you the hyperactive juggler who keeps 15 balls in the air at all times? Are you the type who keeps the phone in one ear and your hands on your computer, while you “listen” to one of your fellow workers?
When you are totally present to another person, it’s like being in a narrow tunnel. Communication runs from your head to his head. There’s nothing on either side; no sounds can penetrate; no voices; no interruptions.
When my son, Bill, was 7, he was a rapid fire “question machine.” He asked more questions in one hour than all the modern game shows put together. I remember one evening when I had put in a rather long day and I was sitting in my chair at home reading the paper, and he was sitting on the rug playing. He began to ask me questions and, as usual, I answered them in my half-conscious way while I continued to read my paper. But this time, he suddenly stopped talking and walked outside. I had not been present to him at all. To this day, it haunts me to wonder what question he had asked that I never answered.
If you want to be a “totally present” person, try these three things today:
1. Pick a person
2. Pick a time
3. Pick “being present”
Pick a person you have ignored in the past. Think hard about this. If this is a person you consistently ignore, you probably won’t remember. It might be your youngest son; it might be the office clerk; it might be that person right next to you.
Next, pick a time to listen. Don’t wait for her to come to you. You go to her, and ask: “How’s it going?” or “What’s happening?” or whatever question you know will get that person talking.
Next just “be present.” Don’t interrupt. Don’t solve their problems. Don’t look away. It may only take a few minutes; it may take an hour. Who cares? It will be the best time you’ve ever spent with that person in a long, long time. If you want to be a leader, be a listener.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.