October 31, 2006
Red Auerbach, Communications Guru
If you’re a basketball fan or live in the Boston area, you know that Red Auerbach died a few days ago. Among other achievements, Auerbach coached the Celtics to eight consecutive N.B.A. championships. There’s a bronze statue of him sitting on a bench in Boston’s Faneuil Hall marketplace—balding, stocky, holding his famous “victory cigar”—an ordinary-looking guy, but a basketball genius.
Part of that genius was an extraordinary ability to communicate with his players. How? Yes, he had a loud voice, he was passionate, he knew a lot about basketball. But the key to his effectiveness as a communicator was his ability to listen.
In a 2004 USA Today interview (quoted in the New York Times obituary for Auerbach), Bill Russell said, “Red had the greatest of ears. After he talked to a player four times, he knew how to communicate with him.”
In other words, communication has as much to do with listening as talking.
Auerbach himself once said, “It’s not what you say; it’s what they hear,” putting his finger on what I think is the essential truth about communication. It only works when you understand the person you’re talking with and shape your words and manner to how he hears—that is, to how he thinks; what he cares about; what he needs. And the only way to understand those things is to listen and observe.
You can’t communicate well if all you do is talk.
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