I Could Listen Better if You Would Stop Talking

Jeanine approached me with an interesting question after a workshop I conducted about professional networking. “I am always really interested in what other people have to say about themselves,” she said, “but I never know when it is okay to interrupt them to ask a question. For instance, if someone is talking about her family, I want to ask about the kids, but they haven’t stopped talking yet. I don’t want to be rude by interrupting, but I don’t want to forget my question, either.” I appreciated Jeanine’s question, not just because maintaining a good flow of conversation is crucial to professional networking, but also because she was being consciously aware of her behavior while networking; and weighing its impact on the outcome of the interaction. This is a far cry from some people I have observed, who bowl through conversations with no more thought about what comes out of their mouths than a five-year-old.


“Conversation,” I said, “especially in a professional setting, is like a game of catch.” When two kids toss a ball back and forth, there is an unwritten rule. Only throw the ball when the other kid is ready to catch it. And you only get the ball back when he is ready to throw it. While playing catch, the most important goal is to keep the ball from hitting the ground. If one kid throws the ball too far, it flies past the other kid and the game has to stop. The worst thing is having a game of catch that builds up a nice rhythm, only to have it come to a halt while one kid has to run to pick up the ball. The same is true of conversation. We have all been networking, and everything seems to be going fine when, thud, the ball hits the ground. Because networking conversations carry greater implications, dropping the ball is even more stressful for everyone involved.

I told Jeanine, “Before you interrupt someone, ask yourself if having the ball is worth taking it out of someone else’s hands.” Interrupting is the same as running over and yanking the ball out of another kids hands. The reason you didn’t have the ball in the first place is because they weren’t ready to throw it to you. Whatever reason you have for wanting the ball is never as important as the other person’s reason for wanting it.

I was at a networking event and asked a guy how he ended up in his current profession. His education began as a music major in college, which was a far cry from the consulting work he did for a living. I was curious about which musical instrument he studied, but he was still talking. And the point of his story was not about the instrument he studied, but about the circuitous route he took throughout his career. If I had interrupted to ask about his instrument of choice, I would have yanked the ball right out of his hands. I would have gotten the answer to my question, but ruined the game. So I waited, keeping my question in the back of my mind, but also realizing that, if we never got around to my question, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. After I listened until the end of his story, I was not only able to circle back to my question about his musical training, but because I truly listened, I was able to dig even more into his professional career.

“Beyond that,” I told Jeanine, “don’t overthink the conversation.” Given the delicate dance that is professional networking, you don’t want to err on either side of the coin. Being too cautious makes you appear unsure or nervous; we don’t trust tentative people to handle tough jobs. On the other hand, some people think that throwing caution to the wind makes them appear bold, but being careless during conversation can be perceived as reckless; and no one trusts a big mouth.

As Jeanine and I talked, Harvey listened and finally commented, “But some people never shut up. If you didn’t interrupt, you wouldn’t get a word in edgewise.” I said, “Networking is about building trust in as short a period of time as possible. When people talk, they trust the person who truly listens. Listening to other people talk never builds as much trust as being allowed to speak uninterrupted. If you want this person as a client, it doesn’t matter if you get a word in edgewise; if only matters that they want to see you again, and work with you.” I told Harvey about a client I had who spoke in such a way that it was clear she had a lot to say; and wanted a willing ear. I made a conscious effort to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I kept thinking, “If she throws me the ball, I’m ready, but I’m not taking it out of her hands.” I ended speaking much less than I normally do during a conversation (just ask my wife), and my client ended up saying, “I’ve got some great ideas of how to use your services for my company. Can I have your business card?” To me, that is a great ending to a smooth game of catch.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

Five Rules I Broke By Relying Too Much on E-mail

I would make a great doctor, because I am a lousy patient. I am better at examining other people’s problems than curing my own. Case in point, I have spouted off for years that a phone call will beat an e-mail every time. Whether it is a sales call, a customer service issue, or an internal conflict among staff members, a voice works better than text. Of course, it is easier to dispense that pill than swallow it myself.

My company has been trying to connect with local associations to promote our services. I first had a staff member reach out to a number of associations on my list. I admonished him not to take the lazy route of e-mailing. I was worried that, because he is a Millennial, he would shy away from person-to-person interaction. I explained to him that nothing sells like a voice. He reported each week about the difficulty of reaching people by phone and having to leave multiple voice mails and not hearing back from anyone. I eventually decided to take on the project myself. Since I’m a busy man, I thought I might reach a broader batch of prospects if I crafted a well-worded e-mail. “After all,” I thought, “if I create an e-mail, not only can I get it in front of more people in a shorter period of time, I will be able to choose just the right phrases to entice the reader to act.” It never dawned on me that all the excuses I wouldn’t accept from my staff member, I allowed for myself.

It should come as no surprise that the number of responses I got from my e-mail campaign equals the number of times I have won an argument with my wife. And my laziness didn’t stop there. Not long ago we had to have some company members step down from their roles in the organization and take a lesser position. After years of complaining about Generation Y kids have a tendency to break up with boyfriends/girlfriends by texting them, I made the decision to inform these staff members via e-mail. I had all the convenient excuses; I wanted to reach them as soon as possible and knew that an e-mail would reach them right away, I wanted to word the notice in just the right way, blah blah blah. So I broke up with them over e-mail. How Millennial of me. Later, while speaking to those staff members about the issue, they said that they were less affected by the decision itself than the fact that they were not given the courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. Sure enough, when the same thing had to be done with a different staff member, and my business partner and I met with him face-to-face, he ended the meeting by thanking us for taking the time to meet with him personally.

So let’s go down the list of rules I broke:

  1. The brain is wired to react to sound, not text. Reading can certainly elicit an emotional response, just look at the vitriol caused by Facebook posts, but text rarely inspires action. Our brains are wired to react to another human voice, which it is so difficult to say “no” to someone who makes a request, even if we intensely dislike the person.
  2. The risk of hearing “no” can be so great that we will create any excuse to avoid face-to-face conversation.
  3. Even though a good quality of a leader is the ability to delegate, you can’t delegate to e-mail. Never confuse delegating with making excuses.
  4. The old advice of leading by example can’t be overstated. I told the story before about a restaurant manager who saw a mess on the floor, walked right by it, and ordered an employee to clean it up. The employee didn’t use a cheap bus rag to wipe up the mess, he grabbed a handful of expensive bar napkins. If you show that, as a leader, you are above doing a workplace chore, don’t expect your staff to support larger initiatives.
  5. We all want tricks and shortcuts to success, but they just don’t exist. Now, before I get an inbox packed with complaints reminding me that sometimes there are benefits to text (the recipient prefers it, text provides an accurate record of an interaction, you can choose your words more carefully), ask yourself “Am I really applying these reasons because they fit the situation, or am I wimping out?” You may be able to word an e-mail or test more carefully, but a conversation that is full of bumps and bumbles is still better than a crisp text. In fact, voice is better precisely because it isn’t perfect. Humans have a healthy distrust of anything too neat and tidy. It reeks of over-preparedness.

The whole situation reminds me of a theatre director who was asked by his cast why they didn’t employ more multi-media in their performances. He said, “The only time we will use a TV screen is when the message cannot be better delivered live.” As such, the TVs were almost never used. Gotta go, I have to take my own prescription and make some phone calls.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or