Listen for Possibility

Need Better Results? Listen for Possibility

Pay attention, ask the right questions, care

Admit it.

We all love coming up with the bright new creative idea, discovering a major innovation, or solving a long-simmering business problem.

And there are rewards for those who consistently deliver results like these.

But too few people recognize that valuable new ideas are often right in front of us. They’re in the conversations and meetings we have every day with clients, co-workers, vendors and even family members.

And all we have to do is be there, be engaged and listen for possibility.

I first heard the term listen for possibility 14 years ago from Peter Fleischer.

Peter’s now senior counselor, director of global growth and development for Ketchum, a worldwide PR and communication firm. At the time, he managed Wendy’s PR account for Ketchum.

My boss, then Wendy’s Communications SVP Denny Lynch, brought Peter in to help our team become better strategic advisors as we rolled out Wendy’s new electronic communications platform, called WeNet.

Going back to the source

I still use the techniques Peter taught us. They’ve been invaluable for doing interviews and writing personal profiles for my content development business. Listening for possibility helps me get under the skin and uncover the rich, human side of the stories I cover.

Peter Fleischer, Ketchum

Peter Fleischer

So, I recently tracked Peter down to thank him, and to discover his own connection with listen for possibility.

Before getting into public relations, Peter worked on Capitol Hill. He ran political campaigns and was a newspaper reporter, often covering politicians.

He said he’d long felt a major problem in our country was that, “people don’t really listen. People are usually rehearsing their next answer, and not really listening to what’s going on.”

That’s why he was excited to hear the phrase listen for possibility during a leadership seminar.

It really hit me like a thunderbolt!”

Peter Fleischer, Ketchum

“It really hit me like a thunderbolt,” he said. “It told people ‘you need to listen, and not just assume you understand what the other person is saying, but listen for the possibility there’s really something new you could learn from them.’ That’s when the lightbulbs start coming on.”

He felt the concept would help people listen more purposefully and attentively.

“The second part of listening for possibility,” he said, “is not just listening passively, but listening very intentionally, and then exploring, asking questions, trying to be a facilitator.”

Critically important in long-term relationships, both business and personal

“I think, particularly with clients and colleagues you’ve dealt with over a long time,” Peter said, “you feel like you can almost finish their sentences for them – at least in your mind – without really paying attention to what they’re actually saying.”

“In our personal lives it can really help a lot, too,” he said. He pointed to his own successful 28-year marriage, during which he and his wife have continued to grow and develop as individuals. “I think a lot of that comes from good habits, from not making assumptions.”

Be a coach, not a critic

While he normally dislikes stereotypes, Peter said there’s one he finds helpful in illustrating the benefits of listening for possibility. It’s the distinction between being a coach and being a critic.

“A coach sees possibilities in others that they might not see in themselves,” he said. “A coach encourages people to achieve what they want to achieve.

“Conversely, critics are always more interested in their own ideas, and criticize anything that isn’t consistent with those ideas. Critics shut down everyone else around them.

“A coach exhibits a high degree of empathy, and is always listening for possibility,” he said. “You get a lot further in business, in life, in relationships when you act as a coach as opposed to a critic. And listening is a huge part of that.”

Listening for possibility is about solutions

Fleischer tries to share a listen-for-possibility approach among his own team. “It’s really important, particularly in customer service,” he said. “People in my business tend to be uncomfortable selling things. So my encouragement to them is always, ‘don’t be selling, be solving.’

“Selling is not necessarily listening for possibility. Solving is ALWAYS listening for possibility.

“Every single person wants to solve a problem the client has,” he concluded. “That’s the joy of being in this business!”