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You Should Focus More on Improving This Skill

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Business conversationTom Merton/Getty Images/Caiaimage

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you make a great first impression at work?” is written by Kathy Collins, chief marketing officer of H&R Block.

Have you ever heard of someone criticized for listening too much? Probably not. When I look back over my career, I realize that the people I have enjoyed working with most are those who aren’t always trying to be heard—those who listen.

The natural tendency when trying to make a first impression is talk a lot. When you’re focused on making a good first impression in a professional setting, listening may not feel powerful enough. You think, “Shouldn’t first impressions be memorable?” We instinctively want to wow the people we meet. We want to convey humor, bold styles, and edgy ideas. We want someone to remember us for what we said, how we said it, and what we did.

But I challenge you to think back on your first encounters with the people you most respect today. I think you will find a positive correlation between their ability to listen and your confidence in them.

Thoughtful listening is a gift. When you can give someone—at any level within an organization—your undivided attention, you have signaled that what they have to say is important. That immediately establishes a level of trust that can’t simply be conveyed through your own words.

I regularly conduct “skip level” lunch conversations with associates two or more levels down in the organization. The sole purpose is to hear their perspective about anything—a business idea, process improvement, family story, or career advice. The topic doesn’t matter so much—what matters is that I am actively listening to them. My phone is out of sight. I am 100% focused on giving that person a chance to be heard. And being heard is a big deal—whether you’re 23 and relatively green or an established executive with decades of experience.

I had the opportunity to meet IBM head Ginni Rometty for the first time a couple months ago. I had been working with her team on a new partnership. She walked in, sat across the table from me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Tell me everything!” And she listened. When I proudly babbled on about the preliminary business results tied to our partnership, she said, “I can’t wait to hear more about that.” Two months later, I met Rometty again at IBM’s investor conference. She walked right up to me and said, “Do we have any updated results?”

I was blown away that someone of her stature and with her huge number of responsibilities would’ve remembered our talk. It proved to me what a great listener she was, and made an unforgettable impression on me.

This week, I sat in on a high-level talent review for my own company. When I looked at the list of the most promising up-and-coming leaders, I was struck by their similar qualities—smart, loyal, proven, and thoughtful listeners. They don’t necessarily have the biggest personalities in the room and they don’t necessarily have the loudest voices. But, somehow, they are the most heard.