Am I interested or interesting? This is a question that every leader (in fact, every person) needs to ask themselves. When we come across as interested in others rather than trying to be interesting to them, there’s a better chance they’ll like and trust us. This is a huge part of engaging people and creating strong relationships both in and out of the workplace.
A few weeks back, I received an email from a woman named Becca Smith who shared that she recalls a talk I gave on this topic. Becca and I worked together years ago, and she and her family now live in Texas. She told me she found this talk helpful at the time and wondered if I had anything written on the subject I could send her. I looked and could not find anything, so I decided to write a column about interested vs. interesting.
Being interested in others may sound simple, but it’s a lot harder than one might think. As I sat down to think about it, I realized there are actually three parts to this equation. One is overcoming the natural urge to try to be interesting. (That’s this week’s column.) The second part—which will come next week—is developing the skill of being interested, which centers on asking good questions. Finally, two weeks from now, we will zero-in on listening, which is a vital part of showing people you’re interested.
Being interested gets people to open up, which paves the way to an authentic connection. It gets us beyond arm’s length and creates the kind of relationship that makes people want to sign on as clients or buy from us or partner with us. It helps us build the kind of strong relationships with employees that inspire them to do their best work. It helps us create loyal customers. It’s an awesome business skill.
Yes, we also need to have the right leadership and technical skills—and our company’s products and service have to have the right price and a good level of quality—but all of these are just the price of entry. In the end, we do business with people we like. Ask yourself whom you enjoy being around the most: the person who is interested or interesting?
I struggle with being interested myself. Many do. It’s natural to want to hear our own voices and tell our own stories. A lot of this has to do with the signals we get all our lives. We are taught that to be leaders we need to come across as experts, always sharing advice and giving feedback. Being interested in and listening to others isn’t always emphasized. But it’s what gets results.
For years I would spend three or four nights a week in a hotel. I would flip on the TV and channel surf. Many times, I was just looking for some show to watch without requiring deep thinking, which gives me a headache. Anyway, years ago I came across a show called Blind Date. It would match up two adults who would go out on an evening date and follow that up with a full-day date. At the end of the show, each person would be interviewed about their experience. Then the question would be asked, “Do you want to go out with this person again?”
Sometimes both would say yes or both would say no. Other times one would say yes, and one would say no. The person who said yes was always surprised when the other said no, for their perception was that the date had gone well. I noticed those who spent the most time being interested were much more likely to get a yes versus those who spent more time trying to be interesting. The person trying to be interesting spent most of the time talking about themselves instead of listening and asking questions. Those who were interested often used appreciative inquiry, meaning they were able to ask questions in a positive, insightful, interesting manner.
I know firsthand it can be tough to resist the urge to be interesting. In particular, being a good listener is hard for me. Every report card I ever received had checkmarks by “Needs improvement in listening.” This can come across as lack of respect. It is a characteristic I must work on constantly.
The first step is to get really intentional about being interested. Just being aware of our natural tendency to try to be interesting is a huge part of the battle. Then we can take steps to change this. In my case, I have found there are some simple tools and techniques that help me to do a better job of being interested. Here are some that work for me:
• At the top of an agenda for a meeting, I write myself a note to be quiet. (Okay, it actually reads, “Quint, keep your big mouth shut.”)
• After a conversation, I ask myself, Do I know more about the other person or do they know more about me? If I know more about the other person, the conversation was a success.
• I write down the names of the attendees of meetings (including my own). When someone speaks, I put a checkmark by their name. This helps me hold up the mirror so I will listen more and talk less.
• Wait. Let others weigh in first. Many times, I find the point I wanted to make or information I wanted to share is said by someone else.
• Ask questions before sharing information about self or company. When you’re in a meeting, it’s a natural urge to talk about your company’s product or value. Plus, we’re often trained to do this. Before speaking, pause to shift your focus to the other person. If waiting on a customer, take time to gauge what their needs are. Why are they in the store? Even if you feel it is obvious, ask anyway. Sure, a couple coming into a restaurant wants to eat. However, maybe it’s because it is the place they had their first date, or they are craving something on the menu, or someone recommended it.
• Do the same in the workplace. This past week, it was time for me to meet with Crissy Nettles, the newly hired manager of the bookstore that will be opening in Southtowne. My role was to share with her the history of the Studer Family of Companies. Becca’s email had reminded me to be interested more than interesting, so I started by asking Crissy about herself. I learned about her parents, where she grew up, received her undergraduate degree, her overseas experience in her course of study, her master’s degree, how she met her husband, her children, her experience of owning a bookstore in Monroeville, Alabama, her family’s move here, where she worked before accepting the bookstore job, and her first impressions of whether we are walking the talk.
I found our conversation interesting and I learned things that I feel will help me know more about bookstores and how I can be helpful. Without “being interested” being top of mind, I wouldn’t have handled our time together this way. That would have been a shame, because I feel it got our relationship off on the right foot. The saying “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care” comes to mind here. (We will talk more about the power of asking great questions next week.)
• Look for ways to build tactics showing you are interested into the workplace. In past columns, I’ve described such techniques as rounding on employees and customers, utilizing peers in the hiring of new staff, sending thank-you notes, and calling customers to see how they are doing. Each one shows interest. (Again, we will cover these in more detail in next week’s column.)
• Work hard to hone your listening skills. Along with asking questions, great listening is a cornerstone of being interested. (We’ll cover the fundamentals of great listening in two weeks.)
Working to become more interested can lead to great enlightenment about others and one’s self. Also, it completely changes the way they see you. And it takes a lot of pressure off—once you realize that you don’t have to keep trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s amazing how much you’ll enjoy connecting with the people around you, and how much you’ll learn in the process.