Curiosity — and listening — changed my life

I’ve changed the way I approach meeting people. Accomplishing my stated objectives is secondary. My primary goal is to answer this question: What can I learn?

I’ve always been curious. But it took a long time to get to this point.

It has made me a different kind of person. Better, I think.

The smartest guy in the room?

I was trained as a mathematician in the Ph.D. program at MIT. I probably know more about math than you.

I’ve written or edited millions of words of software documentation, research reports, and books. I wrote two books on writing. I probably know more about writing than you.

I was a prominent technology, media, and marketing analyst and public speaker for 20 years. For six of those years, I was the analyst the other analysts came to for advice on ideas. Analysts meet with senior people in business and advise them on strategy and technology trends. Being the smartest person in the room — at least on trend questions — was the job.

All of that experience groomed me to be an insufferable smartass. And I certainly was, often.

But being an insufferable smartass becomes tiresome after a while.

The joy of listening

Most of the people I meet with now are younger and less experienced than me.

But it is an incontrovertible fact that they know more than me about the things that are important to them.

Many of them are (or hope to be) authors, and they certainly have knowledge I’ve never encountered before.

And having realized that, I’m now suffused with the joy of learning and listening. There are things I want to know.

What is going on with you? What have you just experienced? What has surprised you? What is getting you excited these days?

What have you learned and are ready to share?

Everyone has knowledge and insights that are new to me. What are they? I’m desperate to know.

I also want to know what makes you tick. Who are you? How does it feel to be you? What is going on with you? What problems are you wrestling with?

Because you know more about you than I’ll ever know, and I’d like to find out who you are — just because people are interesting.

Listening often accomplishes other goals

When we meet, there is almost always an agenda.

You are considering hiring me, and I want you to know how I can help.

You are offering a service, and I want to know if it’s worth my time.

You and I are collaborating, and I want to gather your knowledge and combine it with my own.

You have substantive questions about things I am expert in, and you want my knowledge.

I am working for you, and I need to understand what you need and deliver it to you.

The direct approach would be for me to attempt to explicitly accomplish the goal of the meeting.

But what I’ve finally learned is that curious listening is often a better approach. The more I know about you and what you’ve learned, the smarter I can be in our relationship.

And the act of listening — and showing that you understand — creates trust. Trust is the basis for everything that follows.

So ironically, in attempting to accomplish a concrete goal, like closing a deal or delivering answers, it’s often more effective to concentrate on learning first.

The reformed introvert

I’m an introvert. Interacting with people has always taxed me. I was much more comfortable with knowing things and sharing what I knew.

This is a fairly common persona. Lots of nerds are introverts. The insufferable smartass performance is just an extreme, highly refined version of the same thing.

But a strange thing has happened since I began concentrating primarily on curiosity, learning, and listening.

I’ve discovered that every person is endlessly fascinating. People are really wonderfully inventive, diverse, and entertaining. Nearly every moment of learning about them is enjoyable.

I like them.

This doesn’t feel like being an introvert any more. I’m not sure it’s being an extrovert, either. But it is a wonderful place to be at the this point in my extended career.

All it took was slowing down for a minute and listening a bit more.

Imagine that.

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  1. Ted Lasso said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

    Josh: this is excellent advice, especially for graduation season. Teaching this summer and will put it to use. Thank you.

  2. I used to hire for curiosity and empathy as key traits in addition to experience. They were facets of highly successful product managers often ignored.