You Don’t Learn When You’re Talking, You Learn When You’re Listening

When you meet someone for the first time (or you’re spending time with someone) what’s your goal? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want to get out of the interaction and conversation you have with them?

Now, in general, most people don’t think very intentionally about this question, which is a huge mistake because if you’re not clear on what you want to accomplish, chances are you’ll never hit the goal you would have wanted to hit if you’d thought about it.

But, even when you are clear on what your goal is, chances are you might have a widely divergent set of goals based on the person and the circumstance. For example, your goal could be

  • To get an introduction or referral
  • To get help on a project
  • To get some advice to solve a problem
  • To find a sounding board
  • To have fun/relax/laugh
  • To enjoy an experience together
  • To find/discover a partner or teammate
  • Etc.

However, there is one goal that I would highly encourage you to consider making a part of virtually every relational encounter you have—and that is the goal of learning from the other person.

If you’d like to do that, you’ll want to follow and practice the next four ideas on a daily basis.

I. Believe That, “Everyone Knows Something Better Than I Do”

No matter, what you’re really good at, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who you know—you can’t know everything. The vast amount of knowledge present on planet earth right now is mind-boggling (and it’ll only get worse).

Because no one can master it all, everyone finds little pockets of information that they find interesting (usually related to a passion or interest area) and they master that small area.

Once you own this belief, you’ll find that it changes your encounters with people because you’ll start asking questions of that individual to find those little pockets. However, you’ll never do that if you don’t start with the belief that, “Everyone knows something better than I do.”

As a voracious learner who spends most of his “free time” reading and taking courses (yes, even on a Friday evening at 10:00 p.m.) I know a fair amount about a lot of things—but I still enter virtually every conversation thinking that the person I’m talking with knows something I don’t and, of that, I want to learn from him or her.

So, do you believe that? Do you believe to the core of your being that everyone knows something better than you do?

II. Be Utterly Fascinated By People

People are fascinating. Everyone has a story—and no two stories are the same because no two people have the same exact experiences (not even twins who grew up in the same home and went to the same school).

Everyone has personality differences, educational differences, experience differences, personal preference differences, recreational differences, relational differences, intellectual differences, culinary differences, hobby/passion differences, etc.

The diversity of humanity is simply fascinating with its endless possibilities.

And the more you find yourself fascinated by people, the more you’ll want to learn from them. You’ll want to hear their story and you’ll want to learn from their experiences because everyone has a uniquely different and fascinating story to tell.

So, are you fascinated by other people and their stories?

III. Stop Thinking About You When You’re With Other People

One of the reasons why so many conversations go south rather fast is because each person is thinking about, “What do I want to say?” or “What do I want ask next?” “What do I want to get out of this?” or “How can I get out of this conversation?” Etc.

Did you notice the orientation? It’s all focused on “I” (“What do I want?”) vs. the other person in the conversation. Focusing on you is a conversation killer. Focusing on the other person is a conversational enhancer.

Let’s play this out. Let’s say you just met Sally. If you’re acting like most people, you’ll be looking for opportunities to tell Sally about you and your life, what you’re up to, what’s going on in your life, what you’re working on, etc. Once you’re done telling your story, you’re basically done. Having interacted with people for over five decades now, I can easily attest that this is the normal conversation pattern for most people.

However, if you’re NOT thinking about you when you meet up with Sally, what are you going to do? Exactly, you’re going to ask Sally questions. And not just one or two questions, you’re going to ask her a whole slew of questions. In essence, you’re going to become a little Socrates in that moment and ask a whole series of questions that you think will elicit information that will be useful to you. However, you’ll never get to that place if you’re focused on you and what you want to say in that conversation.

So, when you’re with other people, do you tend to think about you and what you want to say or them and what their genius might be?

IV. Own That You Only Learn By Listening

By definition, if you’re talking, you can’t be learning. All you can share with others is what you’ve already learned or figured out. Learning takes place when you choose not to talk and then take in the ideas of others.

In other words, it’s only when you’re listening, that you can learn. Now, to be honest, it is possible to listen and not learn (i.e. you can let the sounds of another person’s voice “enter one ear and exit out the other.”)

Which means that if you want to learn, you have to pay attention to what they’re saying while they’re saying it (and not thinking about what you’re going to say or what story you can share to top their story or what question you’re going to ask next, etc.).

Listening, truly listening, involves all four of the ideas I’m sharing with you in this Johnson Letter. It begins when you believe that the person you’re talking with knows something about something that you don’t. It continues with a pure fascination that you want to know this person and their story and what they’ve learned along the way.

And then, once those two items are taken care of, you’re now engaged in a conversation where you’re asking a significant number of Socratic questions to draw out of this utterly fascinating person some of the wisdom and knowledge they posses. And finally, as you’re doing that—not focusing on you, but on them—you’re listening to their answers and responses with intensity—trusting that you’ll hear at least a few things that will either be immediately employable or part of your long-term mental database.

If you want to be your best version of you, you have to use every available opportunity you can to learn—and not just from books and courses, but from people and experiences.

So, do you want to be the best you that you can possibly be? If so, make sure you follow these four key ideas on a daily basis.

  1. Believe that, “Everyone knows something better than I do.”
  2. Be utterly fascinated by people
  3. Stop thinking about you when you’re with other people
  4. Own that you only learn by listening

If you make it your goal when you’re with people to ask more questions and to listen to their answers than to talk about you and what you know, you’ll be amazed at how much the world becomes your classroom—and you become a better version of you!

To your accelerated success!

P.S. Note: I didn’t title this, “You Never Learn When You’re Talking,” because you could be engaged in a conversation with someone (or a group of someones) about something and in the debate and discussion that ensue may come to a new understanding. But, I trust you get the gist of this lesson that the vast majority of your learning comes when you’re engaged in listening, not talking.

P.P.S. You’ll know you really own this lesson, when other people start remarking how interesting you are—and you know you didn’t say much at all about yourself :-)

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