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Nelson Mandela was once asked where he had learned to be a leader. He answered that his father was a tribal leader, and that when the chiefs of the different tribes met he accompanied him. They all sat in a circle, and talked one by one explaining their problems, proposals and ideas. His father never interrupted others. He listened attentively, waiting for everyone to talk and argue. When there was silence, then he spoke.

It seems counterintuitive, but your ability to influence does not depend on your speech, but on how and how much you listen. Listening is probably the least understood and practiced trait in business. Learning to listen is very complicated, but when you do it the benefits can be immense.

If you think that you don't have a problem shutting up and listening, think again. Are you able not to interrupt when your work is being criticized? Or when what is being said threatens your deepest beliefs? Or your position of power? Virtually no one is able to let another person finish an argument without interrupting it, without ever diverting attention or thinking about the next thing they're going to say. It's complicated because from birth we get what we want by attracting attention. Our parents are our guinea pigs and we study their reactions in order to get what we want. Crying, then screaming, then manipulating. Everyone who is mother or father knows what I'm talking about: At home children are fantastic negotiators.

The problem comes when we go out into the street and face society. At school, crying or shouting doesn't take you very far, so the child has to evolve. There he develops his capacity for manipulation and uses social power (in extreme cases violence) to achieve her or his personal goals. Later, at work, most people continue to use these tools to influence others, but this time without much success. The use of power (because of position, insider knowledge or information) and manipulation can yield short-term results, but in the long run they do not work. People today are more informed than ever, and your most valuable employees and customers have other options to choose from outside your company. By manipulating or asserting your power you can only get away with it once. From there your customers will not return and the employees who stay in your company will do it only for money, and as soon as the first opportunity appears they will leave. If you want to influence others in the long term, it is crucial to know how to listen so you can convince them to follow you.

The benefits of listening appear from the very first moment. When you listen to your employees, staff turnover can decrease by 20%. In an experiment conducted at one of India's largest manufacturers in 2016, a satisfaction survey was passed on to half of the employees. In the next five months, this group had a 20% drop in turn-over. They were given a voice with a simple piece of paper, so imagine the effect if employees could freely express their complaints directly to their boss.

But listening isn't just shutting up and let them talk. Listening is putting yourself in the other's skin, understanding their problems and motivations, and being open to the possibility, that other person's argument can change your own ideas. It's about listening with fierce attention, as Susan Scott says in her book "Fierce Conversations”. The person who speaks has to be the center of our universe, she has to feel that it is the most important thing in the world for us at that moment.

Chris Voss is probably one of the people who better understands this. The lives of dozens of Americans have literally depended on his ability to listen. Voss has been the FBI's chief negotiator on kidnappings worldwide. According to him, when he's negotiating, there's only one question in the kidnapper's mind: "Do you see what I see?" Voss' job is to go beyond understanding the criminal. He has to get into his mind, get into his skin, understand his history and the circumstances that had led him to commit the crime and see what he sees. To do this he has to listen fiercely. It is not a matter of agreeing, but of interpreting the circumstances with the eyes of the other. The moment the kidnapper realizes that the negotiator sees the situation through his eyes, the dynamics of the kidnapping change, and the odds of a happy ending soar.

In a negotiation of any kind, in the company, with the children, with the partner, this approach works miracles. The next time you face a difficult conversation with a boss, an employee, a colleague or a family member, remember that what they are trying to say to you is: “Do you see what I see?” If you can convince them that you actually see what they see, you will have turned a cul-de-sac into a two-way street. But let's move on to the practical terrain: How can you convince them that you see what they see? Very simply: by repeating their idea in your own words. A good start can be: "let me see if I understand you: what you need is..." or "what you would like..." and then go on to say: "I perfectly understand your situation and your motivations". It's also very important to take notes, look into your eyes, and nod.

The advantages of listening fiercely and speaking last are clear:

First, you collect all the other person's information without giving any on your part. A clear advantage is gained in negotiation, as you can adjust your arguments to bring the conversation to where you are interested. Ideally, ask questions to get to the bottom of his/her motivations, because the real motivation of your counterpart is almost never explicit.

Second, the speaker feels respected. This lowers their defenses and increases trust to you, sharing more information.

Third, in stressful situations, the speaker will often try to provoke you. When someone does not have enough rational arguments, they want you to go down into the arena of chaotic and direct confrontation, because it is the only terrain where they can defeat you. Don't fall into the trap. Let him speak until he or she runs out of arguments. Take notes. Think. When he finishes speaking, calmly dismantle all his arguments one by one.

Fourth, when two arguments are irreconcilable, listening allows you to reflect to find a third way. If solution A and solution B are completely opposite, a compromise will leave both parties frustrated. Perhaps there is a solution C that satisfies both parties without giving up anything or almost nothing. Listening allows you to think to find that third way.

Do you want to be a better leader, a better salesperson, a better professional, and influence others? Learn to listen. It's difficult because it requires a change of habit, but it's something you can train and its benefits are immense. If you need help with this exciting topic or have questions, please contact me.

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