Many years ago I had the chance to play ping pong against a guy who was a top player in Shanghai. I’ll call him Chen. I’m not a good player. I used to play when I was a kid, during recess.
We started by doing some warm up exercises. What I noticed was that it was always easy to hit the ball back to Chen. No matter how badly I hit the ball, Chen was able to return it in the most controlled fashion. I didn’t have to move around or reach for the ball. It always bounced off a nice spot on my side of the table where I just had to pull back my forearm slightly to hit it. Although Chen didn’t correct me or give me any tips, rallying with him made me feel like I was a much more fluid and competent player than I really was. I didn’t want it to stop!
After warming up, we played a game and kept score. His serve was fast and I couldn’t read his spin. He won one point by doing something with his wrist, sending the ball flying across the table. Within no time, I lost with a score of 11–2. He politely shook my hand while I stood there dumbstruck and smiled like a kid who had just been saved by Superman.
A conversation is like ping pong, with two parties bouncing ideas back and forth. Unfortunately, too many conversations are like competitive games. People interrupt each other to make their points. They get defensive or aggressive, sometimes both. Or they try to coach you and tell you what to do. Or if they can’t think of any advice, then they’ll tell you to look at the bright side.
But there is another distinct and powerful way to converse. We can listen so that others have the best speaking experience possible. Like Chen rallying with me before the game, we can deliberately, selflessly, and skillfully keep the workout going.
Good listeners make it easier for us to speak. They allow us to work at our own pace, to stretch and exercise our thoughts and feelings. They help us perform mental gymnastics and emotional somersaults. They help us think more clearly, and creatively. They help us warm up to our best performance.
This is how we need to be heard at work. It’s nice to talk freely about the different ways we tried to solve a problem, so we can work out a better idea to go forward. It’s nice to run through a detailed plan uninterrupted, so we can make sure we didn’t miss something. It’s nice to talk about unproven ideas without feeling judged, so that we can discover the best ones.
We need to recognize the true benefits of listening. It’s not about acquiescing or giving up power. On the contrary, it’s a disciplined and supportive way to encourage deeper and more meaningful discussions. Now stop competing and coaching with your conversations, and help people warm up to more insightful and innovating ideas by listening.