The Rule of Thirds: How to Truly Listen

The Rule of Thirds: How to Truly Listen

4.5 min read

Jeff Beals

“Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage,” wrote Publilius Syrus more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome. Such wise advice from ages ago has never been more relevant. In the modern professional world, we are suffering from a listening crisis.

Actually, it’s a “lack-of-listening” crisis.

Whether your role is executive, managerial, sales, customer service or anything else, it is critically important to your success that you listen.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” wrote Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Too often we get that order mixed up. We focus on being understood as opposed to understanding those with whom we live and work.

Ask any of the greatest salespersons or sales trainers what it takes to succeed. Chances are that “ability to listen” will be at or near the top of the list. Success in sales requires you to understand your prospective client before you can do any sort of pitching, convincing or persuading. The smart salesperson asks carefully crafted questions designed to drill as deep as necessary to find out what makes the prospect tick. Truly listening to those answers allows a salesperson to customize, or at least portray, the product or service in such a way that creates maximum appeal.

By the way, “truly listening” doesn’t mean you act like you’re in one of those cheesy “active-listening” workshops. Many people who have completed such workshops look like they are listening actively – they have an intense look on their faces, nod their heads and occasionally paraphrase what the person is saying – but they still don’t retain any of it. Active listening is much more about understanding than it is about facial expressions and head-nodding.

Super executive Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once said, “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

Iacocca’s statement reminds me of the old saying, “God gave you one mouth and two ears; use them proportionately.”

In other words, we should listen twice as much as we talk. I call it the “Rule of Thirds.”

Two-thirds of the time you spend talking with a colleague, client or a prospect should be focused on the other person. One-third of the time is focused on yourself.

“No man ever listened himself out of a job,” said former U.S. president Calvin Coolidge. Simply put, listening is one of the top skills required for professional success.

But be careful you don’t over-do it. Some people become so committed to good listening, that they become 100 percent “interpersonal givers.” In other words, they spend three-thirds of their time listening to other people. If you do this, people will tend to like you, because you allowed them to talk about themselves. However, if you fail to reserve your third, they won’t know anything about you or how your business can help them. Listen twice as much as you talk but don’t forget to pitch something about yourself.

Why is focusing on the other person so important? The answer is simple: most people are rather self-absorbed. Want proof? Here it is: I am my most favorite subject. My friend is his most favorite subject. You are probably your most favorite subject.

Saying “I am my favorite subject” sounds awful, but it is not necessarily a selfish or narcissistic thing to say. After all, I spend a lot of time working on my favorite subject. I have invested much in my favorite subject. The success or failure of my favorite subject determines the direction of my life and has a big impact on the people I care about. I sometimes lay awake at night worrying about the things my favorite subject has screwed up.

Most people are the same way.

If you show earnest, sincere interest in my favorite subject, I can’t help but like you. I can’t help but feel some sort of connection with you. Showing sincere interest by truly listening disarms colleagues and clients and paves the way for your success.

You might be wondering to whom you should listen. Who is worthy of your attention? Who deserves your best listening skills? That’s easy: everyone. You never know who has the right information for you or knows just the right person you need to meet.

Sam Walton, the late founder of Wal-Mart, once said, “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say. It’s terribly important for everyone to get involved. Our best ideas come from clerks and stock boys.”

When it comes to listening, remember to do it sincerely and remember that everyone counts.

About the author:

Jeff Beals is an award-winning author, who helps professionals do more business and have a greater impact on the world through effective sales, marketing and personal branding techniques.You can learn more and follow his “Business Motivation Blog” at

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