We have a running joke in my family about phone calls with my father-in-law. He’s an action-oriented engineer who has little tolerance for pointless small talk. So when you call, you better be ready to get to the point.
The conversation might start pleasantly enough: “How’s things? How are the kids?” But before you know it, seemingly mid-sentence, he calls out, “Okay, thanks for calling, good to talk to you, bye!”
More than once, I have been left sputtering, “Wait! I called you for a reason! I need to tell you something!”
While communication skills may seem like the ultimate resume cliché, it remains true that communication is a bedrock skill for successful leadership and professional success of most any variety.
(And of course, most clichés become cliché by being universally applicable.)
Communication features prominently in the new book by Franklin-Covey exec Scott Jeffrey Miller, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow.
Good conversation is all about turn-taking. We listen, then we respond. Problems happen when turn-taking gets out of sync. When we look like we’re listening when really we’re busy mentally prepping our retort and watching for a pause where we can insert it in the conversation.
Miller says we all have an internal timer on how long we think another person should speak. Some of us can listen comfortably to a couple solid minutes of talk from a conversation partner. Others of us get antsy after a few seconds.
(I have learned that my father-in-law’s phone call timer expires after about 7 minutes. Once we hit the 7-minute mark, I know that an abrupt “Bye now!” is imminent.)
When our internal timer goes off, we’re liable to jump in with our response.
But what if your internal timer is unreasonably short? What if the person you’re listening to is making a more complex point that takes some contextualization or explanation?
Miller suggests this super simple strategy to make sure your internal timer isn’t derailing your communication.
When you’re feeling the impulse to cut someone off, follow this listening hack:
- Close your mouth. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Literally place your upper and lower lip in contact. Obviously, you don’t want to press your lips together in an impatient or perturbed expression, but gently touch them together as a physical reminder to yourself that right now, you’re not talking.
- Count to 10. Touch each finger to your thumb as you continue listening.
- Take note. More often than not, you’ll find that either of two things happened in those ten seconds:
- Your conversation partner was able to wrap up their thought, land their point, and stop talking—without your interruption.
- Your conversation partner said something in those ten seconds that was actually useful, new information—something that gave you helpful insight that you would have missed had you interrupted.
Try out this listening hack with family, friends, and neighbors at your next holiday gathering. See what interesting information you gain by not derailing communication prematurely.