How to Be a Better Listener: Always Be Collecting Dots

Listening is always mentioned as a critical skill to succeed in business and life. I’ve been taught many ways to improve my listening, and my listening has improved, but I can’t remember much of the advice specifically. Out of all the advice on listening I’ve received, I can only point to one piece that has stuck.

Advice on listening is difficult because you need to remember it while focusing on a conversation. If you are focusing on having a good conversation, you aren’t thinking about “The Top 7 Tips to Becoming A Superstar Listener.”

The simple piece of advice about listening I find myself coming back to is from successful restaurateur Danny Meyer: always be collecting dots.

Danny Meyer’s book “Setting the Table” was one of my favorite reads of 2019. It is part-biography and part-business advice from a top-tier operator in the ultra-competitive New York City restaurant industry. It contains the founding stories of several critically acclaimed and famous restaurants: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and most importantly, Shake Shack. Meyer’s advice on listening is key to these restaurant’s renowned customer experiences.

What does “Always Be Collecting Dots” mean?

The more information you collect, the more frequently you can make meaningful connections that can make other people feel good and give you an edge in business.

Always be collecting dots translates to always be collecting and thinking about information from other people. It is a short way of getting in the right mindset to listen well. There are an infinite amount of dots in the world, but you must notice them to take advantage of them.

Every interaction with somebody is a chance to learn about them and make a connection with them. You cannot do either of these without collecting dots. You have to listen. You can’t learn anything about someone else while focusing on yourself.

Listening well requires an ego shift. It requires you to think about another person more than you think about yourself. The always be collecting dots mindset encourages you to be selfish by listening to others. You can collect more dots for yourself by listening to others than you can by focusing on yourself in conversation.

To collect dots you must ask. People share information about themselves if you ask. Many of the questions we ask are self-serving. Worse, we often ask questions we don’t care about the answers for. We immediately start thinking about our response rather than listening to their response. You can’t collect dots if you don’t care about the questions you ask or the responses you receive.

There is no stronger way to build relationships than taking a genuine interest in other human beings and allowing them to share their stories.

When you are always collecting dots, you have more dots to connect. If you know more people and know more about those people, you can build better relationships with new and existing people. You have more dots in your collection and be better at collecting dots the more you practice.

Collecting dots is a way to create personal network effects. When you are always listening to others, you find ways of connecting. Information from one person becomes valuable when talking to another. As your network and collection of dots grow, the value you can bring to a new member of the network also grows. Your collection of past dots makes new dots more valuable.

In Business

Businesses need to interact with customers. Customers always have dots to collect. I know I have forgotten this. When you are on the phone back-to-back with clients or receive an email from someone you don’t know well, you often are looking for ways to quickly resolve the interaction. You aren’t looking to provide them with a valuable experience or build a deeper connection.

Creating valuable experiences builds deeper connections. Deeper connections lead to more and better business. If you take the time and effort to learn and care about other people’s businesses or projects, eventually you are rewarded.

If I don’t know that someone works, say, for a magazine whose managing editor I happen to know, I’ve lost a chance to make a meaningful connection that could enhance our relationship with the guest and the guest’s relationship with us. The information is there. You just have to choose to look.

In the restaurant business, this is clear. Repeat patronage is critical. Meyer says “my goal is to earn regular, repeat patronage from a large number of people—40 percent of our lunch business and 25 percent of our dinner business—who will dine at our restaurants six to twelve times a year.”

The value in collecting dots pays off in long run interactions. When you know where someone likes to sit, their favorite menu item, their favorite team, or field of work you create the possibility of a valuable connection. These are the type of interactions that lead to return customers.

The more dots you collect with a customer or a co-worker, the more likely you are to find success. You build better connections and tailored experiences.

How to Always Be Collecting Dots

The first step to always be collecting dots is realizing dots exist. By reading this, you are part of the way there. When you realize dots exist, you begin to hear them. You begin to see which questions uncover dots and which uncover non-information. This should lead to asking questions that uncover dots.

Ask questions that uncover information rather than allow for your response. Ask questions that you care about the answers to. “How are you?” is not a good question if you don’t care about the answer. Many conversations are meaningless, collecting dots is about making conversations meaningful. If you are looking to make connections with people, questions have to move beyond “how are you.”

Everyone goes through life with an invisible sign hanging around his or her neck reading, “make me feel important.”

Think about the information people are providing you. Think about their interests and their answer’s context. This allows you to collect new and more insightful dots as well as connect the dots better. Ideally, you can reference an earlier conversation or earlier in the same conversation. This proves you are listening and collecting dots.

You must be more aware of the information other people are providing you to collect dots. The reminder to always be collecting dots matches with a shift in mindset. You cannot be successful at collecting dots if you are focused on providing information. There is a balance between focusing on yourself and focusing on your partner that allows for ideal conversation and dot collection.

Have an end goal in mind. If you know what you want out of a conversation, you can guide it in the right direction. For most conversations, this might be “make a deeper connection with someone.” Have the end goal as a guide for what dots you want to collect, but be open if the conversation goes in another direction. You are a human, not a robot.

In Business

Meyer and his team look over the detailed reservation sheets from each of their restaurants every day. They look for dots that allow them to offer their guests more hospitality. They also look for opportunities to create chance encounters by strategically seating people with similar business interests near one another (or create privacy for those who want it as well). This is an example of creative ways to collect and use dots to create valuable experiences.

I encourage each manager to take ten minutes a day to make three gestures that exceed expectations and take a special interest in our guests.

Businesses collect all the data they can. Data is impersonal. It is numbers or characters on a screen. All that data is information about a real person. Many companies don’t use data to make personal connections with their clients. If you learned a client is succeeding in business, your company may send out an automated message, could you provide a personal touch? In an age of automation, a non-automated reply goes a long way.

Businesses can learn from this. How can they think about collecting dots for their customers? What did you talk about last time? What are past contexts you have sold them? Where are they from? What is important to them?

From a sales perspective, this allows a salesperson to customize their selling experience. This allows you to create an interaction that is better tailored to them. This leads to better outcomes. Even if the situation isn’t right, making a connection may lead to future business.

Conclusion

This whole post is a reminder to myself as much as it is for you. It is hard to remember and even harder to use the always be collecting dots mindset in conversations. Knowing the idea exists is half the battle. It has helped me improve my ability to listen, and I hope it helps you too.

Always be collecting dots is about focusing on other people, not yourself. It is learning about other people so you can connect past information you’ve gained with the information they told you. This isn’t a “hack.” You must be genuine.

Meyer has taught his team this idea, and it is key to creating the highest quality restaurant experience. By listening to guests, you provide them with an experience they value rather than an experience they expect. Collecting dots allows Meyer’s team to go above and beyond.

The advice to always be collecting dots applies to many areas of business and life. Conversations and connections are better when you focus on other people rather than yourself. It requires a shift in mindset, and this advice has best helped me with that shift.


Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think on Twitter: @IanVanagas.

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