There are three important questions I think every person, and certainly every manager, should ask himself or herself about how well they listen: The first: Do you get out from behind your desk and walk the corridors and floors?
To know what is going on, you have to be where the action is. You have to go to your customers. You have to go to the factory, or to the sales floor, or to where the problems are.
To me, Bill and Melinda Gates offer one of the best examples of senior executives going where the action is. Many nonprofit organizations with budgetary concerns do not deliver a high percentage of their income directly to the cause they serve. Thirty percent or more of the money they raise goes to operating costs. In other words, for every dollar you donate to such organizations, the intended audience gets at best 70 cents. The Gates Foundation, on the other hand, does devote a high percentage of its income to helping those in need. One reason is that both Bill and his wife, Melinda, are frequent visitors to the countries in which their foundation is active.
Here is how Bill Gates described their first trip to Africa:
“It was a phenomenal trip. Not long after we returned from this trip, Melinda and I read that millions of poor children in Africa were dying every year from diseases that nobody dies from in the United States: measles, hepatitis B, yellow fever. Rotavirus, a disease I had never even heard of, was killing half a million kids each year. We thought if millions of children were dying, there would be a massive worldwide effort to save them. But we were wrong.”
The Gates Foundation then set up a system to guarantee purchases from drug companies to combat the diseases. Bill Gates concluded, “There’s actually no substitute for going and seeing what is happening.”
The second question to ask yourself about how well you listen: Am I doing most or all of the talking in my interactions with others? Listening is an educational process. When you don’t listen, you don’t learn. Marshall Goldsmith, a well- known executive coach and a good friend, advises people who have a hard time listening to do the following: stop, take a deep breath— and let the other person speak up.
The third question to ask yourself about your ability to listen: Do I try to empathize with other people?
Being empathetic is the second step in being thoughtful. Empathy requires that you attempt to identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another person. There are four aspects to empathy. The first is understanding that one person cannot do everything. When you empathize with someone it doesn’t matter who the other person is or what he or she does. I know that every person I interact with is valuable and is deserving of empathy.
The second aspect of empathy that I see around us too much is me, me, and me. We must transform me, me, and me to you, you, and you. We must make sure that everything in our lives is not about me; it must be about someone else.
The third aspect of empathy that deserves attention is our acceptance that each of us is but a very tiny speck in the universe. I am very fortunate that the back of my house overlooks the Pacific Ocean. When I do nothing but look out at the ocean, I sense how small I am. I am known in my field and to my friends and associates as an energetic person. But when I stare out at the Pacific, I am humbled. However, I am also inspired. That sense of my smallness in the world is what gives me energy. It causes me to question myself, and accept that I am not good enough, that I am not contributing enough. I am not making enough impact. I’m not adding enough value to the world around me. My sense of humility does not come from thinking about how important I am, but from how small and insignificant I am compared to the endless expanse of the universe. And ultimately, I believe, our humility is what defines us and makes us selfless.
I find that I often learn some of my most important lessons from children. So I asked a schoolchild what empathy meant to him. I knew that he had just completed a school project about it. Here is what he said. “If somebody fell at our school while we are playing together, even if we are all enjoying the game, if someone goes to try to help out, to take care of the kid, or maybe go get the nurse, I think that is empathy.” To me, that is a perfect description of a caring mindset. He thought of empathy as “kindness.” And that is the fourth aspect of empathy that I want to focus on. Kindness is an action. It is the doing part of empathy. I try to practice it in my work every day.
This is an excerpt taken from ‘The Difference: When Good isn’t Enough’ by Subir Chowdhury.