Ask the Readers takes a break while I’m on the road. Instead, I’m featuring guest posts.
Today’s comes from my friend Bryan over at Income Surfer. Bryan is one of those people that I wish lived on my street. When we get together, we talk about real estate, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, battery technology, annual reports and the future of energy. Bryan is far more knowledgeable than I, so
halfmost the time, his words go right over my head. Once in a while a nugget sinks in though and I’m a better person for it.
I hope you enjoy Bryan’s post today!
In the age of social media and sound bites, it may seem like the art of listening has lost its value. I personally believe that these type of interrelationship skills are more important than ever, especially if you want to stand out. Anybody can text instructions to their subordinate or email a report to their boss, but how many people take the time (or invest the energy) to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with someone?
The reasons why not, are many. Most people are too busy……… too scattered…. too connected…..or simply afraid of rejection and being vulnerable? Those are all legitimate concerns. Our modern lives are often busy, and leave us feeling too scattered or connected to our electronic leashes. Our society also looks down on vulnerability, as a weakness, but when it strikes the right balance I would say that vulnerability is a strength. Vulnerability not only shows others that you are human, but the times when you feel vulnerable are also those times when you have stepped outside your comfort zone. A perfectly pragmatic example of vulnerability being a good thing is the fact that only one of the 11 jobs I have had since I was in high school was an advertised job opening. Each of the other 10 were the result of either networking with my contacts or being actively recruited. I was vulnerable when I wrote a letter of interest, saying that I was seeking a new opportunity. I was vulnerable when I called up an acquaintance, and asked for a meeting. What’s more, the one job I actually “applied” for was the absolutely terrible government job that I quit in February 2016. This is a very practical way of showing the value of relationships, to even the most hardened human.
There is another reason that deep human conversations are part of Mrs. IS and my efforts to live intentionally. You may be thinking that such things wouldn’t be as important to us, while we are living our version of FI…… but you would be wrong. The fact of the matter is that we are passionate about learning. I couldn’t stop learning if I wanted to…. which obviously I don’t. I am voracious book worm, and here is a list of some of my favorites. My brain is just wired with a natural curiosity wherein one answer leads to another question, and each book suggests new subjects to learn about. I really enjoy seeking out information and comparing/contrasting dissimilar systems.
A life properly lived is learning, learning, learning, all the time. –Charlie Munger (2017 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting)
What do deep human conversations have to do with learning? Simple, other people have so much to teach us. Most others know at least one thing that you don’t know, and vis versa. Each and every person has been shaped by their experiences…..and we can learn from those experience and that person’s own thought processes. Further, we understand that person better when we understand about their past journey and future goals. Such insights were invaluable to me in my various managerial and entrepreneurial roles….. and is just as important to me whether I am meeting fellow travelers or discussing work with my few remaining clients. I am not saying it’s a perfect system, but there is much to be garnered by listening.
The Chinese philosopher Laozi is credited with saying:
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.
(As an aside, have you ever wondered about the authenticity of this translation? I can’t imagine that the Chinese were even aware of a “mile” as a unit of measurement in 604 BCE.) No matter, the point is the same. All long journeys start somewhere and require first steps. Likewise, I would suggest that all meaningful relationships start somewhere…… often with a first question or introduction. For the sake of this conversation, lets leave romantic relationships out of the mix. Let’s instead focus on friendships and business colleagues.
A good example is my business mentor. He was a client of the engineering firm I worked for after college. He was a moderately wealthy man who ran a fist full of family controlled businesses. His development and home building businesses stood out to me because they weren’t huge publicly traded companies, like our other clients. Additionally, they seemed to be showing much more restraint in the heady times real estate bubble of 2005. I wanted to know why.
Eventually, I wrangled an opportunity to talk to him for a few minutes. I think I was delivering some forms for his signature. I didn’t know anything about the land development business, but I knew that I wanted to learn. I stumbled through a nervous introduction while he stared awkwardly. I explained that I am much more interested in business and investing than civil engineering, and I wanted to learn about his business model and structure. I also said that his companies appeared different than our other clients, and I was curious about why. After about a minute he put me out of my misery and told me to contact his assistant……suggesting he’d take me to lunch a couple weeks out. Sure enough, we had that lunch and I have learned a ton from our friendship over the last 12 years.
I know right now my introvert friends and family are cringing…..right Benny and Tabby? I get that, so maybe you weren’t born an extrovert….. but that’s no reason you shouldn’t make the effort. Even if you only do it for selfish reasons, like wanting to understand your colleagues and clients better, make the effort. What’s more, you can train yourself to function as an extrovert. Mrs. IS is an introvert by nature, from a family of introverts…… but she has taught herself to function very well as an extrovert. Past jobs, such as when she was a hospice chaplain, required her to have intense discussions with a couple dozen strangers per day. The process would exhaust her and drain her of energy, but she learned to do a great job. You can also!
An introvert learning to function as a extrovert is a personal transformation, and beyond the scope of this conversation. What should be apparent however, are all the benefits of learning to be a good listener. Think of what you can learn, and how much better you can understand the people in your life. Think you don’t have time?! Nonsense, and I suggest you make time. If you really understand what your spouse, friends, and team members need/want….. you can make better decisions about helping them get those things.
Ways to be a better listener
- Give the other person your full attention. That means you should try to ignore the cell phone and your own “to do” list, and pay attention when you are talking with them.
Take notes, either mentally or physically. While you may not always have a pen and paper handy…..some of the best thinkers I know ALWAYS carry a note pad. (As an aside, every beer I have ever had with Mr. 1500…..and every Berkshire Hathaway meeting we’ve enjoyed together….. he took notes in his notebook.) Likewise, Mike and Bjorn (two of my other buddies) each take constant notes in their smart phones. My notes are usually about things I want to look up, or spend more time thinking about……. but you can focus on whatever you want.
- Look for common ground in the other person’s story. Listen especially for experiences or goals that you have in common with the subject person. People establish understanding and trust more quickly when they can identify commonalities like experiences or goals.
- When you recognize that something is very important to the other person, repeat that thing back to them in the form of a question. This shows that you are listening and deeply engaged in the conversation. It will also help you remember, and flush out any misunderstanding if you are incorrect.
My challenge to you is this. Take the time to seek out meaningful (and intentional) conversations with people that you find wise or interesting. You’ll be glad you did!
Thanks so much for the post today Bryan! My favorite line is this one:
I really enjoy seeking out information and comparing/contrasting dissimilar systems.
From this point on, I’m going to refer to Bryan as Charlie Munger Junior. And that is the highest honor I can bestow on a fellow thinker!
Don’t forget to pay Bryan a visit over at Income Surfer!
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