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All Ears?

In business and in life, learning to listen is one of the most important skills you can develop.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the April 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

You never know when you're going to meet someone who will turn out to be a major influence in your life. It could be someone sitting next to you on an airplane or someone you happen to meet at a party at your next-door neighbor's. For me, it all began at a business meeting when I met Tony Wainwright, chairman of a $2.5 billion corporation, author, playwright, incredible philanthropist and one of the world's foremost salespeople. He became my greatest mentor and one of my best friends.

Tony passed away not long ago. I miss him every day. Shortly after he died, I began to wonder: What set him apart from the other people who tried to do what he did but failed? As I thought about Tony's life-not just his sales life, but about everything he did-I realized that what made him great was his uncanny ability to listen. He listened-truly listened-to everyone he met. I'd like to pass on a few of his secrets for listening to you:

  • When you had a conversation with Tony, he made you feel as if your ideas were worth their weight in gold.
  • (Not that everything you said was right-if you were on the wrong track, he would let you know.) He would make you feel special, as if you were the most important appointment he had in his life, and his only purpose was to find out what was on your mind. Then he'd tell you how you could make your ideas 20 times larger than anything you'd conceived. His belief in you was so strong that you had to believe it, too. That's what made him such a great salesperson: He sold you on yourself.
  • Tony was a passionate man.
  • In fact, his passion for life kept him going when he should have been dead 10 times over. You'd think that a man like that would want to speak about himself and his accomplishments. In fact, it was just the opposite. You could never have a conversation with him that focused solely on work. At some point, he would simply stop and say, "What's going on with you?" He really wanted to know. It was one of the greatest lessons he ever taught me. I am a passionate person as well, and early on, I'd be so excited about my product or project that I'd want to "sell" it to everyone. Now, I sit back and observe. I let the other person talk, find out as much as I can, and make a calm, informed decision about whether something is a good business move for all parties involved. I get to know people in ways I would have totally missed before Tony came into my life.
  • Tony perfected the art of the follow-up.
  • For most of his life, he wrote up to 50 letters each day (not e-mails). Each one contained just a few sentences regarding an idea he'd had about a project you'd mentioned, or an article from a newspaper with a note that said, "FYI-I read this and thought it would interest you." It might relate to something you were working on, but more often than not, it would be about something he knew you'd like or something you'd spoken about months earlier. That's when you really knew he had been listening to every word you said.

These are just a few of the things that made Tony so successful, and they demonstrate why he had such an impact on so many people. He still influences me today-whenever I'm in a situation I'm not quite sure how to handle, I ask myself "What would Tony tell me to do now?" The answer comes to me in a flash, and I can hear his voice whisper in my ear: "Listen," he would say, "just listen."

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