“Everything that’s meaningful is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Listening is more about what you feel than what you actually hear.
The most powerfully intimate and sensuous thing I’ve ever done with a lover was to listen. In the soft cool white sheets of her bed we listened to music together. I chose songs not just that I loved, but that I thought she would love, and in the darkness of a warm early summer night we did nothing more than listen to the waves of sound. For more than an hour we lay in each other’s arms, skin to skin, with hardly a word said while the rhythms and melodies took us off into a place where no one had ever been.
The lyrics of the songs didn’t matter, it was the shared communion of listening to something beautiful, and doing nothing more, that melted us together. Later that night we told each other things we’d never shared before and we listened to each other like we listened to the music, not just hearing it but letting the whispered secrets seep deep down inside us, and join us.
I listen to music all the time; it’s a constant and essential friend in my car, in my kitchen and in my work. I write with headphones on and the volume up, and can’t really write any other way. I get lost in music all the time, but I realised that I very rarely just listen to music. I hear it most of the day, but very rarely just listen to it.
Really listening to someone is one of the greatest kindnesses you can ever bestow, and it’s the second most important skill to learn. The most important skill to learn is how to listen to yourself.
I’m aware that I’m about to disappear up my own fundament into cod-psychology and wafty bollocks, so here’s the more down to earth bit. The bit about how you get rich by listening.
“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” — Bernard M. Baruch
Baruch was a banker and philanthropist and his quote is but one variation of hundreds of similar maxims that all advise that we have two ears and one mouth and that wisdom, and success, comes from using them in proportion.
Listening — really listening — to your customers, and just as importantly, to your staff and team-mates, is essential to any successful organisation. All of us will have experience of being heard in a meeting, but not listened to, and it never does anything for morale nor the bottom line. Sometimes the consequences are far worse.
Bob Ebeling was heard by his bosses, but they didn’t listen. Bob warned them that the O rings on the Challenger Space Shuttle’s boosters would likely fail, and despite his frantic protestations, the launch went ahead. 73 seconds into its flight, with nearly a quarter of Americans watching on TV, the orbiter exploded fifteen kilometres above the earth and all seven astronauts died.
Heard, but not listened.
Behind nearly every corporate failure, there’s always evidence of good people who warned those above them to fix problems and to change tack, and by the same token, every successful startup ‘pivot’ comes from someone listening to a voice that said, ‘hold on a moment, what if we….’
I don’t buy the mythology that Steve Jobs ‘never did focus groups’. He may not have grouped consumers in a room and asked them what they liked about the iMac’s colours, but he sure as hell listened to the people he needed to. From Jonny Ive and Bill Gates to young designers and engineers, he was famous for listening well.
If you want your organisation to grow and to thrive you have to become an expert listener. There’ll be a lot of superfluous noise and chatter, from inside and outside, but filtering that out will reveal the truths you really need to hear. Then doing something positive about them mean that you’ll have listened.
“The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” — Roy T. Bennett
The lovely girl with the cool white sheets is training to be a counsellor and she explained that to be able to help a client you have to put your own ego to one side; park your own reactions and put your opinions to one side. To be effective, a counsellor has to listen hard to what is being said — and often what is left unsaid — without judgement and to try and ‘reflect’ that back to the client, encouraging them to reflect in turn about what is troubling them. It’s about listening in order to help the speaker listen to themselves.
“You can’t fake listening. It shows.” — Raquel Welch
At this year’s Do Lectures I got chatting to a man I’d met there a few years previously (around the campfire of course). His business was flourishing and he was about to take a big step that would propel his small, respected, artisan brand from a few carefully chosen outlets to national and possibly international availability. It was undoubtedly the right step, and he’d covered all the technical and ethical issues, but as I listened it became clear from the bobs of his head and frowns, and his carefully chosen words, that something was still niggling him.
By accident rather than skill, I ‘reflected’ this back to him and he admitted that there was one person, in the middle of the process, that he really wasn’t sure about. He couldn’t articulate exactly what worried him, but this guy who was instrumental in helping to make this big transition made him feel very uncomfortable nonetheless.
With no more than a few words from me to gently suggest that generally our gut instincts tend to be right, he decided to take the short term pain of paying-off his worrisome colleague, for a stress-free future. My campfire friend had struggled to articulate his worries because they were a gut instinct with no clear evidence. This guy just didn’t feel right.
I know next to zip about neuroscience, but apparently the part of our brains that process emotions has little or no capacity for language, which is why it’s so hard to describe love. It’s also why it’s so hard to describe why something or someone doesn’t feel right. Your deep ancient animal brain is processing all sorts of important things that it can’t really explain to your rational mind, so it just gives you a funny feeling in your tummy. And we all know damn well, if we listen closely to our tummies, the difference between, ‘ooh I really really like you, let’s kiss’, and ‘um, I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t give you the contract’.
Listening to your gut is so damn hard because it comes with no specific instructions or solutions, but compare the two often heard statements: “I wish I’d listened to my gut instincts” and “In the end I just went with my gut instinct.” Which one speaks of failure and which of probable success?
In his Do Lecture ‘You don’t have ideas, ideas have you’ Dan Kieran talks about ‘Spielzeug’ — the indescribable essence of a thing that communicates something special, and draws you to it, inexplicably. Like all great Do talks, different people take different things from it, but for me it is about listening to the subconscious triggers and niggles that tell you that yes, this is your thing, or no, this is not right for you.
It’s high praise to say of someone that ‘they’re a very good listener’, and it’s simply because they make you felt heard.
“The more you talk about someone, the more important they will feel. The more you listen to them, the more important you will make them feel.”
— Roy T. Bennett
“It’s at time like these I wish that I’d listened to what my mother had told me when I was young.”
“Why? What did she tell you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”
Arthur & Ford in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
[This post was originally written for the Do Contribute blog on Medium]