As a young professional with a freshly minted Ph.D., I asked my dad for advice about how to handle a situation in my first job. I kept telling people my great ideas about how things should be run, but I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me. I halfway expected him to give me the weird and colorful advice he gave me growing up. He’d say things like “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had to have some help.” (Um… thanks, Dad?)
But instead, he said “Honey, you need to stop talking so much and listen. Let the other people do the talking. People love to tell you what they are thinking. So, keep your cards close to your chest and let them play theirs.” Well, that was not what I wanted to hear.
I wanted him to tell me how to have more influence on how the business was being run. I had great ideas and created great plans for implementation. I was sure that if someone would just listen to me, they’d see how smart I was. At this point, he may have also thrown in a favorite quote from Mark Twain, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
What did it mean?
So, what was my dad trying to tell me? Originally, I took his advice to mean that you listen to others spill their ideas so that you can get a competitive advantage and that will get you into a position of influence to decide how the business is run. It didn’t take me very long to realize that just telling people about my great ideas did not create an advantage, and it was not a successful way to gain real influence.
Let’s break down what he really said: “Stop talking so much.” For some of us, this is harder than others, but you can’t get to the “and listen” if you don’t keep quiet.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill
Why listen? “People love to tell you what they are thinking.” People like to talk about their areas of expertise. Experts and non-experts alike are glad to tell you their thoughts and opinions about their projects and work. Sometimes, people have been waiting to share some critical piece of information that’s been overlooked by management. “Hold your cards close to your chest and let them play theirs.” This line may imply a competition, but in my dad’s language of metaphor, you really may not have that great of a hand if you’re relying on your information alone. When other players “show their cards,” or they tell you what they have to say, you find out more about what’s going on and whether you have enough information to make a good plan or decision.
My dad was telling me that my focus was in the wrong place: telling people my ideas was not the way to gain influence, listening was. But how?
When I ultimately kept quiet and listened with the intention of learning about projects and operations, I gained three significant advantages.
First. My work on projects got better.
By listening to a variety of experts, team members, and managers, I expanded my awareness of information, perspectives, and risks related to planned projects.
- Listening to more people led to a more complete body of information about the business and operational factors that impacted the project we were developing.
- I also discovered attitudes and operational problems from individuals and groups that would likely impact the implementation.
When I integrated all the information, the work product was far superior to anything I could have created based on my limited knowledge and perspective.
Second. I built better working relationships.
When you listen well to a person, you build a relationship with them.
- People value being heard and having their knowledge and perspective considered.
- Following up with an email to recap a conversation allows you to confirm the information, but it also lets that person know you really were listening to them.
Being a consistently good listener leads to stronger working relationships and contributes to your reputation as a reliable and trustworthy person. This pays off as you work on multiple projects and with more and more people.
Third. I just learned more about business and operational realities, and that knowledge can be powerful.
When you make a practice of listening, before long, you will learn a lot about subjects that are new to you.
- Over time and across numerous projects, as I listened, I learned more and more about programs and issues throughout the organization.
- Listening thoughtfully led to understanding details about how the business operations and program operations did (or didn’t) support each other.
By gaining more knowledge on multiple programs or business lines as well as the background operations, you increase your ability to see a bigger picture and bring a broader perspective to discussions and planning; and that kind of knowledge can be highly influential.
Even though it took me a little while to figure it out, I believe my dad gave me great advice. He was truly helping me see how to gain the advantage and get influence. My error was to think that the advantage was over others. The better way to see it is that I gained the advantage with others. The advantage I gained from learning to “Stop Talking So Much and Listen” to what others had to say was that my work got better and that I had stronger professional relationships. And that is an excellent way to become influential in an organization.
P.S. You know, that colorful thing dad always said about turtles being on top of a fence post? Well, there are multiple possible interpretations. (Go ahead and Google it- some are pretty funny.) But if we assume that the turtle really wanted to be on top of that post (big assumption, I know), it makes more sense now that he would see more and would have a wider perspective of the whole landscape once he had help. Oh, and, he’ll also need some help getting down to get anything done.