Shut Up and Listen

Most of us have never learned the most persuasive tool in the communications toolbox: listening.

For most people, “listening” really means something like: smiling and nodding while mentally preparing what we're going to say.

Amy Cuddy, in her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challengeswrites:

Why is it so hard for us to shut up and listen? There’s a simple answer. When we encounter someone we’ve never met before, we fear that they won’t take us seriously. That we’ll seem “less than.” So we talk first: to own the moment, to take charge, to prove ourselves. We want to show what we know, what we think, what we’ve already accomplished. Talking first says: I know better than you, I am smarter than you, I should speak while you listen. Talking first sets the agenda: here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s how we’re going to do it. Whereas if I let you talk first, there’s no telling what you’ll say. If I let you talk first, I’m giving up control over the situation, and who knows where that will lead me? Giving up control is scary. It’s taking a step into the unknown. Who does that? Only the foolish — or the brave.

For most of my life, I too was prone to speak first in most situations. I had to learn the hard way that speaking first isn't the best way to begin a relationship. I learned this by watching the reactions of those I was speaking to. I realized, through some tough experiences, that I should have kept my mouth shut and let the other person talk. I should have listened first.

The paradox of listening is that by relinquishing power, you become more powerful. But not if it's a tool of manipulation. As Amy enumerates in her book, any person can gain more influence by listening first, talking later (and less), for these 10 reasons …

10 Reasons to Listen First, Talk Later (and Less):

  1. Listening takes courage. Listening demands a good measure of self-confidence and humility. Both of those take courage. You give the other person permission to form their opinions of you without your input. Again, that's scary. To listen first also requires that you've already made the decision to do so. You do this BEFORE you know this person. That takes courage!
  2. Listening surrenders control. When you listen first, you give up control. In humility, you allow the other person to assume that control. You don't know where they'll take you. You don't yet know all that you're giving up.
  3. Listening has as much to do with intent as it does with appearance. According to Amy Cuddy, “Real listening can’t happen unless we have a sincere desire to understand what we’re hearing.” Genuine listening means that you are  present – you are “all there.” Most people can tell in an instant when you're only pretending to listen. You know that glazed-eyed look that's void of non-verbals. You must take an interest in the other person and what they're saying.
  4. When you listen, people trust you. I can't tell you how many times I've just listened to someone and afterwards they thank me. To listen to someone is a great gift to them. Your reward for listening is their trust. Trust is foundational to any relationship. So, you've just established an ally and maybe even a partner.
  5. When you listen, you get useful information. By listening to others you find out what their passions and needs are. This is the “stuff” of networking. This tells you how you can serve them, how they could serve you, or who else could benefit from a relationship with them.
  6. When you listen, you begin to see people as individuals — and maybe even allies. It's so easy to see a face in a crowd and to be content to let it remain a nameless face. But when you engage someone and listen to them, you develop rapport. Now, that face has a name. You realize that this is a real person, someone with whom you can interact. This is someone you can enjoy. By getting to know them your life has just been enriched.
  7. When you listen, you develop solutions that other people can accept and adopt. Let's face it: it's pretty hard to help others solve their problems if you don't understand them. And how else can you grasp their situation unless you listen to them? By listening, you understand their issues. This will help you develop solutions that not only fit but honor them.
  8. When you listen, other people feel heard, and are more willing to listen. When you listen first, you model for others how to best conduct a conversation. When they feel the benefits of being heard, they too will begin to listen more. In the end, everybody wins!
  9. When you listen, sometimes it doesn’t “work” – but you may grow in an unexpected way. It's sad but true. Some people are oblivious to good social etiquette. So when you let them speak first, they pounce on the opportunity and abuse your willingness to listen. Others may be too distracted to enter into a conversation. Any number of other scenarios could result. What can you learn from this? People are unpredictable. How well do you respond in a situation that doesn't go as well as hoped? Do you maintain your integrity?
  10. When you listen, you may have the opportunity to let presence speak for itself. The key elements of presence are: confidence, comfort level and passionate enthusiasm. Listen first instead of barging in with a litany of your credentials. By so doing, you let your presence speak for itself. And presence is a far better predictor of success than what you claim about yourself.

Here is the paradox of listening: by relinquishing power, you become more powerful. You gain more influence. But remember, with power comes responsibility. You must never use listening as a tool for manipulation. But by listening first, you gain more influence that you can use to benefit that person and others.

I challenge you to “listen first” with the next person you encounter. How did that encounter go? What did you learn? 

Ray Edwards is a world-renowned copywriter and communications strategist, writing for some of the most powerful voices in leadership and business including New York Times bestselling authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Tony Robbins. Ray is a sought-after speaker and author, hosts a popular weekly podcast, and blogs at