Two highly accomplished lawyers are sitting at the bar at Sparks Steakhouse in New York. One is my friend’s lawyer, Tom, the other is Tom’s law partner, Kevin. They’re having a leisurely drink, waiting for their table to open up. Sparks is a landmark steakhouse where a handful of New York’s rich, powerful, and glamorous are in attendance most nights. On this night, the A-list name is superstar attorney David Boies, who argued the U.S. government’s case against Microsoft. He makes a beeline to the bar to say hello to Kevin, whom he knows from previous cases.
Boies joins Tom and Kevin for a drink. A few minutes later, Kevin gets up to make a phone call outside. Boies remains at the bar, talking to Tom for 30 minutes. “I’d never met Boies before,” Tom said. “He didn’t have to hang around the bar talking to me. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t bowled over by his intelligence, or his piercing questions, or his anecdotes. What impressed me was that when he asked a question, he waited for the answer. He not only listened, he made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”
I submit that Tom’s last 13 words perfectly describe the single skill that separates the great from the near great. When Kevin inexplicably disappeared, Boies stuck around and made a lasting positive impression on Tom. The two attorneys have different practices; the chance that Tom could somehow help Boies one day is virtually nil. Boies clearly wasn’t looking to score points. In showing interest, asking questions, and listening for the answers without distraction, Boies was simply practicing the one skill that has made him inarguably great at relating to people.
I’m not sure why all of us don’t execute this precious interpersonal maneuver all the time. We’re certainly capable of doing so when it really matters to us. If we’re on a sales call with a prospect who could make or break our year, we prepare by knowing something personal about the prospect. We ask questions designed to reveal his inclinations, and we scan his face for clues.
The only difference between us and the supersuccessful among us-the near great and the great-is that the greats do this all the time. It’s automatic. There’s no on-off switch for caring, empathy, and showing respect. It’s always on.
So why don’t we do it? We forget. We get distracted. We don’t have the mental discipline to make it automatic.
Ninety percent of this skill is listening, of course. And listening requires the discipline to concentrate. So I’ve developed a simple exercise to test my clients’ listening skills. Close your eyes. Count slowly to 50 with one simple goal: You can’t let another thought intrude into your mind. You must concentrate on maintaining the count.
Sounds simple, but incredibly, more than half of my clients can’t do it. Somewhere around 20 or 30, nagging thoughts invade their brain. They think about a problem at work, or their kids, or how much they ate for dinner the night before. This may sound like a concentration test, but it’s really a listening exercise. After all, if you can’t listen to yourself (someone you presumably like) as you count to 50, how will you ever be able to listen to another person?
Like any exercise, this drill both exposes a weakness and helps us get stronger. If I ask you to touch your toes and you can’t, we’ve revealed that your muscles are tight. But if you practice each day, eventually you’ll become more limber.
Once you can complete the exercise without interruption, you’re ready for a test drive. Make your next interpersonal encounter-whether it’s with your spouse or a colleague or a stranger-an exercise in treating the other person like a million bucks. Employ these tiny tactics: Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences. Don’t say, “I knew that.” Don’t even agree with the other person. If he praises you, just say thank you. Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.” Don’t let your eyes wander elsewhere while the other person is talking. Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that show you’re paying attention, move the conversation forward, and require the person to talk (while you listen).
Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is important. If you can do that, you’ll uncover a glaring paradox: The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes. You may feel like a dullard as you listen quietly, but invariably the other person will say, “What a great guy!” You’d say the same thing about anyone who made you feel like the most important person in the room.
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America’s preeminent executive coach and a cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners.