At the beginning of my consulting and coaching career, I dedicated a significant amount of time on the art of communication. In many cases, individuals struggle with the ability to speak in a public setting; as a result, addressing this skill tends to be an element of communication many focus on. However, as I coached numerous professionals and conducted more leadership trainings, the key to effective communication not only required excellent verbal skills, it required the ability to listen with real interest and a desire to understand.
That’s the part of the communication equation that often gets overlooked, when it’s actually the most important element. Why? Because effective listening and engagement focuses energy and interest on/in the person you are communicating with.
One of the greatest guides to understanding and responding to human behavior is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. Most business and sales professionals have read this book, as it provides a step-by-step guide on how to do just as the title states. Though it was published in 1936, the principles addressed are as relevant now as they were over 80 years ago. The crux of the book can be summed up in this simple conclusion: genuinely invest in the person in front of you and seek to truly understand who they are, what they value, and what they want. Doing so will be advantageous for both parties.
In one of the foundational principles early in the book Carnegie references influential psychologist, Alfred Adler who wrote, What Life Should Mean to You. “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is from among such individuals that all human failures spring.”
Carnegie went on to share this anecdote regarding former President Theodore Roosevelt, “Everyone who was ever a guest of Theodore Roosevelt was astonished at the range and diversity of his knowledge. Whether his visitor was a cowboy or a Rough Rider, a New York politician or a diplomat, Roosevelt knew what to say. And how was it done? The answer was simple. Whenever Roosevelt expected a visitor, he sat up late the night before, reading up on the subject in which he knew his guest was particularly interested. For Roosevelt knew, as all leaders know, that the royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.”
The greatest conversationalists and the most persuasive leaders are those who have taken a vested interest in those they lead. Imagine the kind of relationships you’d foster if you not only asked about the topics and things your team members were interested in, you took the time to learn about those things, resulting in specific inquiries and genuine conversations. Imagine the influence you would have and the loyalty you would earn from those same individuals when it came to matters of business and tasks because you took the time to care about them.
It takes a concerted effort to approach everyone in this way; our natural tendency is to talk about ourselves, what we know about, what we have accomplished in life, and so on. However, as Carnegie emphatically stated, “You can make more friends in two months becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” While making your employees, clients and vendors your friends may seem to blur the lines of those relationships, the core principle rings true: make it about them, not you. To do so requires a good deal of emotional intelligence and the recognition that emotion and feelings are indeed a major factor in all our dealings, personal or professional.
In my book, A Climb to the Top, I highlight Eric Bernstein, President of Broadridge Asset Management Solutions, “It’s shocking to me how important emotion is in our business,” says Bernstein. “I want the client to feel that I am not just a software vendor; I’m their partner. The majority of my job is to transform something from whatever it is to what I want it to be. Ninety percent of that is the human element.”
It’s this human element that has set him apart from so many others. His ability to communicate by observing those he speaks with has allowed him to successfully convert countless prospects into clients. “I’m a body language guy,” Bernstein says. “I’m a psychology guy. You can always sense where someone is. You have to be able to pick up on that and determine when something is bothering them. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the job or in life, in a presentation or a one-on-one meeting. It starts and ends with their emotions.”
When Eric meets a prospect, his initial interaction with him or her is often met with descriptions like interesting and intriguing. From the onset, he asks questions, starting with how his prospects do their jobs. In the middle of a response, Eric has been known to stop them dead in their tracks. “I tell them, ‘I’m not interested in what you do,’” says Bernstein. “They (often) look at me funny, and (then) I say, ‘I’m more interested in what you want to do. I want to know the ideal; what you’re looking for.’ I focus on what is meaningful to the guy on the other side of the table.” He went on to say, “Find a way to bridge the relationship to make it personal and provide that extra emotional touch. It’s critical to drive business…I like to think that when people meet, interact, and transact with me, ultimately, they’re building a friendship as well. To me, that’s everything.”
As we continue to navigate uncharted territory – conducting business and trying to build relationships virtually – let us seek to make connections where possible that will not only benefit those relationships now, but in the future when face-to-face interactions return. Practice making each conversation you have about the person in front of you. Learn more about the interests and concerns of your team members and clients. You’ll be amazed at the difference genuine interest in others will make.