Charles Handy on why we need to pay more attention
I was talking with the theatre director, Declan Donnellan, founder of Cheek by Jowl. I asked him what was the secret to being a great director. I hoped that his answer might give me some clues as a teacher.
He said, “pay attention! Not to the text of the play but to the individual actors. If one is having difficulty, you should take them aside.”
Paying attention, Declan said, does not mean telling them what to do. It means listening, but listening plus. It means doing your best to get inside their world. To get them to talk to you.
I love the piece of research which shows that the more you talk, the less you hear.
And the more you talk, the more you think highly of the person you are talking to, the listener. In other words, both sides gain – the listener gains from listening from you, but you gain from his increased appreciation of you.
Paying attention is listening plus, that is, making someone feel they are the best person you’ve ever met.
There’s a story of a young woman who was sent to interview two people running for President of the United States elections, some years ago. I think they were Bush and Clinton but I’m not sure, so let’s call them A and B.
She said, “When I was talking to A, I felt it was extraordinary to be in the same room with the most powerful man in the world.
“But when I was with President B, it was extraordinary to feel that I was the most important woman in the world, because he was paying attention.”
We had Dutch friends who had what we regarded as a brilliant teenage family. There were three teenage kids who were mature, charming, interesting and able to talk with us and engage with us. And we compared our own kids unfavourably with them.
We said to our Dutch friends, “how do you do it? What is the secret?”
And they said, “we treat each child as if it were an only child. We make sure that once a month we take each of them out on their own somewhere and listen to them, pay attention to them, and try to get inside their mind and their world.”
This obviously pays huge dividends.
So don’t tell, listen. Listen plus. It is a lesson that most managers could learn. Don’t go around barking at people. Sit down and listen to them. You will gain their respect and they will be very appreciative of your wisdom in taking the time out to listen to them.
When anyone is going to an interview I say, “try and get the interviewer to talk more than you do. Keep asking them questions.” Because the research shows that the more the interviewer talks, the more favourably he or she views the interviewee.
Similarly, if you are at a dinner party and at a loss of to what to say, turn to your neighbour on your right and say, ‘tell me…” and ask them some question. And they will think you are wonderful because you have the wisdom to listen to them. And you might actually learn something too.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.