What Happens When You Stop Talking—and Start Listening

How can we best serve customers and employees in developing our listening skills? It comes down to embracing a few simple realities.


In all of human history, there’s never been more information coming at us than right now. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the near-comical global statistics: Every minute of the day, according to LOCALiQ, there are 15.2 million texts sent, 350,000 tweets and 510,000 Facebook comments posted and 3.47 million YouTube videos watched. The onslaught is relentless, overwhelming and seemingly endless—and our ability to concentrate as a society has no doubt diminished. That makes listening and developing skills more important than ever.

Even prior to today, the act of listening required a tremendous amount of work. But as the notifications and alerts pile up, it calls for even more. Listening while distracted? You’re better off not listening at all. So, how can we best serve customers and employees in developing our listening skills? It comes down to embracing a few simple realities.

You Won’t Get Anywhere by Pretending

Many people claim to be masters of multi-tasking. But the truth is this: If you’re trying to focus on two or three subjects at once, each individual one will be affected. Checking email while participating in a brainstorming call? Your team will notice. In fact, whether it’s customers or employees, your inattention will be noted, and your engagement may be written off as distracted or inauthentic. And if neither customers nor employees feel like they’re your priority, then, soon you won’t be theirs either.

Conversely, when you’re really listening well and asking questions that drive the conversation forward and deeper into the matter at hand, that’s when you can make an impact. We’ve seen in sales meetings, for example, that some CIOs are extremely detail-oriented and methodical, while others focus on high-level strategy and transformation planning. Listening will ensure you make yourself part of the right conversation, no matter the context or the moment. 

Listening Skills 101: You Never Learn Anything by Talking

If you’re the only one speaking, you’re the only one slipping. Because in conversation, it’s vital to act like a heat-seeking missile—zeroing in fully on your conversation partner and treating them like there’s no one else in your entire universe. That’s not only the best way to establish trust; it’s the best way to find out what your customer—or employee!—wants, and to find ways to help serve their goals.

A colleague once told me the saying, “You are promoted to your exact level of incompetence.” Don’t allow yourself to reach a certain position and become complacent. Embrace continuous learning and growth, and commit to the people you work with and for. Commit to listening. 

You Can’t Just Listen Well and Be a Good Listener

Being an active listener is about far more than just the act of listening. You also have to make yourself available to listen. Think about it: You may say you’re a good listener, but if you’re not taking the time to regularly engage with your colleagues and clients, who are you listening to? You have to devote real time and energy to making conversations—and growth—happen. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck in neutral.

How can you enhance this part of your skillset? Any number of ways. Try building and optimizing your team’s working atmosphere. Try regularly sending follow-up texts to internal and external connections that show you care about them on a human level. Try sending articles to people that are relevant to them and your conversations. These actions may not fall under the definition of “listening” if you look it up in the dictionary, but they do ensure you’re connecting your conversations into actions. And that is real value.

The most surprising thing to me about COVID was how little change I saw in the day-to-day work of the SAP sales team. Don’t get me wrong: I never doubted their skill or competence—I just thought our largely in-person, face-to-face work would be more affected than it was by everything in the world changing overnight. Honestly, though, it hasn’t seemed like that big of a deal. The reality is our people have the skills to communicate; now, they’re just expressing them in a slightly different way than before. So, going forward, no matter what happens, I know they’re prepared. And I know they’ll be able to cut through the noise—and connect to customers in entirely new ways.

John McGee

John McGee is SVP and Managing Director West Region for SAP North America.

Zebra Workstation Connect
John McGee

John McGee is SVP and Managing Director West Region for SAP North America.