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The Skill that Saved My Business and My Marriage

If I told you a skill you learned (and forgot) in Elementary School might help you grow your career, your business and perhaps save your most-important relationships, would you believe me?

If there’s something people have remarked consistently about me, it’s that I can talk about almost anything.

I am a naturally curious person.

And, in recruiting, it’s not a lie that I get a lot of excitement hearing about people’s life stories, their passions and their dreams. Occasionally, their downfalls and their struggles.  All of these things, to me are part of the tapestry of their life, and I love hearing about them.  

Being naturally curious may be my super power as a recruiter.

I also enjoy reading, spend an unhealthy amount of time on medium, and replaced my heavy metal music with podcasts and audiobooks while mowing the lawn on the weekends.  (The latter has become somewhat of a favorite past-time, which my 10-year-ago self would have actually, verbally scoffed at.)

Often, I find myself using this treasure trove of stories from different sources as an attempt to relate to people. The flow seems natural at first glance, 

“Oh, you went zip lining? Nice! I know a guy that runs a whole Zipline and ropes course. Cool place. They are expanding and they do summer camps now. I played basketball with him and his sons for years. Good people…”

From inside my own head, this seemed like a good conversation. But from an outsiders perspective, and especially from the perspective of the other person in the conversation, I had developed a problem. 

I had become a One-Upper.

I had a story for everything and everyone, and while I thought I was adding to the conversation and moving it along, in reality, I totally missed the person right in front of me because I got too busy sharing something someone else has done!  Or worse, something I have done!

What a jerk move!

We all know that person who can’t keep their mouth shut about an experience that clearly tops whatever experience you share. 

Beware The Me-Monster

Brian Regan calls this the Me Monster, and covers the phenomenon beautifully in his act, I Walked On the Moon (Amazon): 

Needless to say, when you find yourself in the company of a one-upper you feel pretty small and unappreciated after a while (like, 27 seconds).

Imagine working with or being married to one (some of you know how this is from firsthand experience)! If you have been chained to a one-upper as a desk-mate or partner, and had a chance to magically do-over that relationship, it seems most people would either opt-out of the one-uppmanship or opt out of the person altogether.

And that is what was happening for me in my life and in my work. People and relationships that were important to me were starting to move away from me, or just not invite me back to work with them.

In my marriage, this was part of some other challenges I brought that all resulted from being overly focused on myself and not what my partner was dealing with or concerned about.

The Elementary School Skill That Saved Me

To get around this problem, I began to realize I needed to do something that would:

  1. Help my mind stay quiet when others spoke
  2. Enable me to actually listen and hear the other person
  3. Recall and remember the things they discussed

As with most things, being aware that I had a problem here helped me start to look for way to fix it.

The Importance of Taking Notes

Back in 2015, I stumbled on* a linkedin post from Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group** called The Importance of Taking Notes.

In the article, which also strikes at the heart of gender disparity in the workplace, he noted how infrequent it is for him, who is a ravenous note taker, to see other executives taking notes in meetings.

He states the aside that many of the most-successful ventures he has undertaken came about because of random chance things he thought to write down. Yet, in business, note taking is somehow not seen as a smart way to It is seen as “office housework,” to quote Sheryl Sandberg, and, as Branson notes, is a fantastic skill to develop to help someone understand their business better:

“On top of counteracting gender bias in the work force, it will also give men a better understanding of what going on within the business and what needs to be done to make things run more effectively.'”

The Importance of Taking Notes by Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group

So, I started consciously taking notes.

On p.a.p.e.r.***

In a hardbound notebook that I carry everywhere and can reference later.

It’s something I actually found myself good at doing, since I really had been taught to take notes since elementary school.

And, over time, I found that the process of note-taking forced me to actively listen to people as they spoke, to get the words and information they were trying to convey.

This helped my mind focus on them and what was going on, not on myself or what I wanted to say next.

That enabled me to really connect with the person I was talking with, feel with them the hard parts of what they were experiencing, celebrate with them the successes they had, and make an actionable plan that could be carried out to collaboratively solve a problem we identified.

Leveraging the brilliance of the scannable app and my Evernote account to archive and keep notes forever, a journal (with page numbers) became the final lynch pin in my note taking trifecta as I could reference items by page number or, if something was really a long project, by book and then by page number.

I used to prefer Moleskine notebooks, but more recently, I prefer the Leuchtturm 1917 dotted, numbered series journals, and the “A5” size (148 x 210 mm), which is a thing. It feels a bit like a legal sized piece of paper folded top-to-bottom, then turned on it’s side to write with.

I find the A5 book size is just enough that I have plenty of room to write most things, and I am not carrying around a huge notebook and feel like I should be headed off to school at any moment.

Note Taking Has Become A Super Power

Its been five years since I actively worked on this habit, and I would like to think it has over taken my desire to overtalk and subconsciously one-up the others in the room.

This has lead to more business deals, fantastic opportunities I have been able to execute on that came initially from scribbles on a pice of paper, and the uncanny ability to actually recall what happened in a meeting three months ago because, I wrote it down.

Clients have remarked how much they appreciate that I take notes. I have been told it helps people know I am listening, and there’s a sense that I truly must value what they’re talking about or else, “why would [I] take notes on it?”

Wait, How Did Taking Notes Save Your Marriage?

Anyone in a committed relationship will tell you that your relationship will be stronger if your partner seems to really be interested in you, listen to you, sees and hears you, and follows through on the things they said they would do.

To the letter, every one of the benefits I have found from note taking will improve your ability to be present with, care about and follow through on your commitments with your partner or loved ones.

I have even pulled out my notebook in the middle of something going on and said, “One moment. This is important to me. I am going to take some notes.”

As awkward as it may have been the first time I said that, my wife appreciates that, when I write something down, it sticks in my mind longer than the dinner menu does, and when there’s a commitment I make, I stick to it much better.

Try it and let me know how it goes.

*well, the algorithm “stumbled upon”
** disclosure: I own shares in Virgin Galactic via Robinhood.
*** mental note: why I write on paper deserves its own write up.
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By @AskRobMerrill

I'm Robert Merrill. I am the founder and principal consultant at ConnectedWell Recruiting and Talent Advisors, a boutique recruitment consulting agency. I have more than 15 years technical and professional recruiting experience across the US and fourteen other countries, globally.

Beside my writing here, I am working on helping make hiring more human again, publishing a newsletter, and Helping 1 Million people get better jobs in 5 years. The clock is ticking.

I also write on linkedin and medium, answer questions on quora, am funnier on twitter @askrobmerrill and trying to figure out instagram as well. Give us a follow, if you like.

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