Just Listen

We had a client call this week for an event Second City Works is doing in New York City in a couple of months. The boss of the organization opened the call with this, “To be honest, we’re real shitty listeners. So if you can help with that, it would be great.”

First of all, owning up to what you’re bad at and frank foul language in the first few seconds of the call? Totally on board with this group.

Within minutes, the boss asked us for specifics. “What would you actually do to help us listen better?”

I’m not a teacher of improvisation, but I’m married to one. So I explained an exercise that has been taught at Second City for generations. Two people pair up to have a conversation – doesn’t matter what the topic is – but both people have to begin their sentence with the last word that the other person has said.

Try it. It’s not easy. You know why? It forces you to listen to the end of someone else’s sentence.

We rarely listen to the whole sentence.  Usually we get the gist of what someone is saying and start prepping for our response. It is actually “unnatural” for us to actually listen to everything someone is saying.

In the exercise, individuals are forced to come to grips with the auditory shortcuts that have become the standard in our communication behavior.

It takes work to be a good listener. But the results are so worth it. The absolute best sales people are engaged and attentive listeners. They draw others in, not  by overwhelming us with information, but by processing our needs and wants fully – and then finding a way to give us what we’re asking for: a better solution, a better process, a better product.

I was thinking about the ability to hear both what’s there and what’s not there when we got the news that George Martin, the producer of the Beatles passed away. Martin had an uncanny ability to bring his wealth of knowledge of music to become an additive ingredient of the Beatles sound, rather than a prescriptive template. His suggestion to add some light strings to “Yesterday,” helped build that particular recording into one of the all time greats. Just contrast that with what producer Phil Spector did with “The Long and Winding Road” – which bludgeons the listener with orchestration. Years later, The Beatles actually stripped all of Spector’s “producing” from the album “Let it Be,” to actually let the music come through.

Great listening shows us that sometimes it’s just as important to hear what isn’t there.

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