Listening for Success

By: Janet Miller

Manager, Rural Entrepreneurship, Southeast Region

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a networking event in Girard designed to provide high school business students the opportunity to engage with local business leaders. The students were professionally dressed and eager to introduce themselves and engage in conversation. In fact, most had prepared questions to help keep the conversation flowing.

Some of their questions were easier to answer than others. I will admit that it took me a minute to remember what my favorite college class was and why! For the record, my answer was General Psychology because it taught me about myself and others.

One of my favorite questions was: “What is a skill you feel has been critical to success in your career?”  My immediate answer was listening. Listening may not be the most exciting skill, but it has played an important role in every job I have had – including my current role at NetWork Kansas.

I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of listening until I was hired to serve as Enterprise Facilitator for five counties in Northeast Kansas in 2003. Enterprise Facilitation is the brainchild of Ernesto Sirolli and is based on the belief that the first step to helping others is to shut up and listen. (You can hear Ernesto’s entertaining account of how his experience doing aid work in Africa led him to this realization in this TED talk.)

As Enterprise Facilitator, my job was to support entrepreneurs’ ideas and passions by connecting them to the knowledge and resources they needed to accomplish their dreams. Doing so required listening at a level I had rarely done before, and what I learned still helps me today.

A few of my key learnings about listening are:

  • Be ready to listen. Eliminate distractions and focus on the person speaking. No one wants to compete for attention with your cell phone, the view out the window, etc. If something is distracting you, reschedule the conversation for a time when you can focus, if possible.


  • Be curious. Approach conversations as an opportunity to learn something new. Periodically check that your understanding of the situation is correct. And, ask good follow-up questions to help deepen your understanding.


  • Be okay with silence. Sometimes people need a second to think before answering a question so don’t jump in immediately. Give people the space to share their thoughts without unnecessary interruption.


  • Be willing to take a back seat. Keep the focus on the person talking. Don’t assume you have all the right answers and spend all your time looking for an opportunity to share them. And, don’t assume that the person you’re talking to is looking for advice. There will be plenty of time for you to share your thoughts as the conversation progresses, and it isn’t a competition.

I’m certainly not a perfect listener. I’ve been known to get distracted by my phone, interrupt with unwanted advice, and prematurely assume I understand a situation. But, I try to learn from my mistakes and continuously improve – another key skill in the workplace and life that I’ll try to remember to share with a student the next time I’m asked “What is a skill you feel has been critical to success in your career?”


About NetWork Kansas:
NetWork Kansas was established as a component of the Kansas Economic Growth Act of 2004 to further entrepreneurship and small business growth as a priority for economic and community development in the State of Kansas. Backed by more than 500 partners statewide, the NetWork Kansas service promotes an entrepreneurial environment by connecting entrepreneurs and small business owners with the expertise, education and economic resources they need in order to succeed.

NetWork Kansas facilitates the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem within participating communities through the E-Community Partnership. Contributing factors to successful development include availability of financial capital, support by local leadership and development of educational resources. All of these factors combine to increase entrepreneurial activity in participating towns, leading to increased startup activity, business expansion, job creation and more.
For more information about the Entrepreneurship (E-) Community Partnership, visit or call 877.521.8600.



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