Today we are going to look at arguably what is one of the most important soft skills, one that sets the stage for so many other soft skills to appear. Will you agree or disagree with our host?

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: Coming up, we are going to look at arguably what is one of the most important soft skills, one that sets the stage for so many other soft skills to appear. That’s coming up in just a few seconds.

Graham ‘0:26’: Welcome to Episode 3 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham and with me, as always — well, it’s only our third episode — is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. Hey, Toby?

Porterfield ‘0:36’: I am looking forward to this episode today because I think the topic one that we don’t completely agree on. So it will cause us to have some discussion over it and I think we are going to hear some interesting responses from some of our listeners.

Graham ‘0:55’: We’ll get to that in a few seconds. But first, let me set up who we are for someone who might have come into this cold. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills and that’s what we are going to do right now.

The Most Important Soft Skill?

Graham ‘1:22’: I’m going to tell you — are you ready for this, Toby?

Porterfield ‘1:29’: Let’s have it.

Graham ‘1:31’: I am going to make the bold pronouncement that listening is the most important soft skill of the over 50 that we catalogued. I have been working on our book project and I was writing about listening and the more I wrote about listening, the more I realized it is really the key soft skill. Do you want to argue that right away or do you want me to make my case?

Porterfield ‘2:00’: I think I will start with a slight agreement in that listening enables so many other soft skills — innovation, teamwork. There are so many ways that listening is, I’ll use that term, enabling that it’s an important one. I’ll give you that. Let’s see what you have to say about listening.

Graham ‘2:23’: Okay, I was going to go with you just accepted my case. We can call it a day and people can get on with their lives. But  now you are going to make me do a little work.

Porterfield ‘2:36’: Absolutely.

A Leader Who Didn’t Listen

Graham ‘2:38’: Did you know that Marissa Mayer, 20th employee at Google, female software engineer, one of the most visible employees at Google. She left there to go to Yahoo! to be its CEO, not a programmer, but the CEO at Yahoo!. Over her tenure of four or five years, things were a bit rocky, to say the least. And more recently, if you have been following the headlines, you know she has sort of ushered the company to be bought by Verizon Communications. And she’s basically on her way out the door. Her choice, she’s resigning. But if you look at her tenure at Yahoo!, what she really was supposed to be doing at Yahoo! was rebuilding Yahoo! Again and again in the reporting on her and Yahoo!, and this came up frequently, her inability to listen to people — she was one of those people who thought she was the smartest person in the room — and she tended to articulate things without listening to the people in the company who were trying to help her. We see this in companies all the time with leadership trying to help the leader because failure to them means failure to employees, which can mean bad things like uncertainty and other problems. I have certainly worked at several jobs where leadership challenges have made it hard to go in and do the job each day.

When you don’t have listening, you don’t have the opportunity for an organization to grow.

Listening Leads to Influencing

Graham ‘4:18’: That was my first piece of evidence. My second piece is really fascinating to me. I found some research on MBA students. What they did was they found that for people to be influential in leadership roles, they had to have listening appear first.

If you weren’t a listener, you couldn’t be a leader.

Graham ‘4:49’: That was the a-ha moment for me. Boy, if you are going to influence people, what are the things you need to be able to do. You have to listen because you have to understand what other people’s motivations are; what their fears, concerns, interests and goals are; and you also have to understand their language. Good leadership comes from using the language of that organization. I have worked at a lot of different jobs and the language at each job is different, the way people interact is different, the things that are acceptable norms are different. The first thing you have to do at a new job is really listen. Is it a culture where when they ask you to go to lunch on Friday, you better go to lunch or you are jeopardizing your potential there? Or is it a place where they ask you to lunch because you are the new guy? That’s what we do, but we really don’t want you to accept. Those are two examples to me where listening really shows up as a critical entry point to broader soft skills engagement.

Porterfield ‘6:11’: That connects back to what I started with. That is influence. You talk about listening and the MBA study that said if you are not a listener, you are missing a big part of being an influencer. I think back to John Maxwell, who has several books on leadership. The tagline I remember, and I may not be quoting this exactly, but it is leadership in influence, plain and simple. To be a leader, you certainly have to be an influencer. Also, pushing further into his book, he says that influencing isn’t just for the leader in the organization. Each one of us has an informal leadership position. We are each leaders in our own right, whether it is in our personal life, our volunteer life, our social life, our business life. That’s where when we talk about who needs listening skills, we all have the opportunity to influence the ecosystem we operate in. Influence is a really important part of it. Listening is so foundational to that.

Graham ‘7:33’: Someone, maybe my wife or some other people that know me well, would say my listening skills are not the best. I want to acknowledge that because maybe my lens may be challenged in some cases. I wanted to throw that out there and it’s probably fair. I was listening to what you were saying I was worried that I was sounding like this incredibly great listener, that people come to me and I listen to every word they say, and I think you, having breakfast with me probably 300 times, know that is probably not my strongest suit. I’m probably a better talker than listener. Maybe that’s part of what makes me make that one such an important soft skill. We do need to have influence at every level of an organization and it is one of those things we often overlook. We assume, and I certainly assumed this when I got into my career and was the new guy, that I was going to have no influence. I was going to have to earn the ability to speak at meetings and make a contribution. But what we are seeing now is some of the students leaving colleges are sharper technically than their superiors often. They know how to use technology in ways we older people might not be as well versed in, and know when to say something and when not to say something. And also, for that person supervising that younger person has the expertise and knowing when to listen. I have been on both sides of that and that’s a little dicey.

Porterfield ‘9:29’: Even with that influence, what I will support is that listening is so key to our success, but you make a good point that it’s not something that comes natural to us.

Listening is also something in a new situation, we may be more inclined to not listen, to jump to conclusions.

Technology and Listening, Oh, My

Porterfield ‘10:00’: You have identified for us some of the issues surrounding listening for us. Can you lay out a few of those?

Graham ‘10:08’: Certainly, one of the big things that can be good and bad with listening, and we all live it, as my phone actually is buzzing in my pocket while we are speaking is technology. The ubiquitous cellphone, it is there at all times. It’s vibrating in my pocket and I am dying to know who is trying to reach me right now. Is it something important? If I take that right now, then that means I am not paying attention to you and this podcast. I see this happen all the time. I was out to dinner a couple of nights ago. I was at a beach resort area and there was a family of six and they were all on their technology, three on their cellphones, three on their iPads. And I am certain they considered it a family dinner. It was shocking to me that that could go on. But we see it all the time. I am not going to tell you that I am not guilty of that. I have checked out of discussions with people because my cellphone or my computer or because I am a great multi-taskers in my mind. I can be watching a TV show and writing something, or editing a podcast and watching TV, and suddenly I realize that one or the other I am doing better at, and I have to go back and recover. That is a reality we have to deal with.

Graham ‘11:36’: On the other side, technology can be incredibly empowering. You and I are doing this podcast over Skype. We are in different locations. We are 63 miles away from each other. I was texting with a relative in China two weeks ago and I had no idea he was in China until he told me it was bedtime. I was thinking it was kind of early in the morning for bedtime. Then he told me he was in China. So we have this ability to communicate and be engaged with people much more than we ever have been, but it comes at a cost.

Our need to listen is heightened now because we have an incredible amount of information being thrown at us everyday and you have to be able to determine what is valuable to you.

What may be valuable to you in what I am saying may be different for someone else. We have to be able to hear for what we need to hear. Do you hear what I am saying Toby, or am I just talking to myself?

Multi-Tasking Hurts More than Listening

Porterfield ‘12:46’: I’m sorry. I was just checking a text. Did you say something? Could you play that back again? That misnomer of multi-tasking, we deceive ourselves. You mentioned that when we are multi-tasking we really aren’t engaging productively and there have been studies that show there are some things we can do at the same time, but really when we engage with another person, multitasking really gets in the way. Not only does it interrupt that flow of information back and forth, but it also sends a message to the person you are speaking to that you are not as important. Let me check on my phone right now. That’s what really can take away from your ability to influence a situation and your ability to listen. I would push it a little further. At the heart of that is the relationship between people in that suddenly they know where they stand in the priorities of your life.

Coming Up Next Week

Graham ‘14:00’: We have given people enough to think about. If you listened to this podcast and agree that listening is the most important soft skill or disagree, we’d love to hear from you. You can email us at or you can tweet us at @realsoftskills. We would love to have that discussion. There are more than 50 soft skills that you can choose from. We would be anxious to hear someone else describe what they think is the most important soft skill. With that we are getting near the end. It’s time for me to tease next week’s episode. Next week, Toby, I am really excited because we are finally going to share what nearly 500 people told us about soft skills in the survey we did a few weeks ago. It’s really good information about how soft skills are really being looked at in the workplace. We are going to share those results and talk through them next week. I think that’s going to be a real eye-opener for people. I know it was for the two of us that this isn’t just academic theory and concepts. This is actually where the rubber meets the road and it shows people are really starting to pay attention. That’s next week. Thank you for listening, good day, and your favorite line of all time, Toby, good soft skills.