Listening. Upgraded.

My son taught me an invaluable lesson. One that was also vital for my business life: I stopped listening to reply and started listening to understand.

Alon Shklarek by

It was one of these breakthrough moments as a parent. My oldest son was in his early teens. He complained that I didn’t listen. ‘Yes I do’ I replied, without thinking. A few ‘Yes I do’ rounds later and without making progress we agreed on a solution.

We would treat my bad listening the way a football referee treats foul play. If I responded to him without actually listening, I’d receive a yellow card. If I did it again, he’d raise a red! I’d be sent off to evaluate my approach. And you know what? It worked like a dream. I realized that I had of course always heard my children, but I hadn’t always listened. And, instantly, I began to understand. His point of view. His perspective. His needs. Our relationship blossomed. But I am not here to offer parenting advice! There are blogs galore for that sort of thing. So let’s transfer that learning to business.


Who is actually listening?

It’s important to understand the context here. We are all busy. Stressed. We have meetings to get to, emails to check and deals to close. We know what we want. And we know what we need to do. Of course! This is all well and good. Apart from one major catch: If we all have our own agendas and if we all have somewhere else to be, then we are all left with the same problem: Who is actually listening? Stephen Covey observed that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” What a brilliant insight into the human mind.

In a world where so many of us are either talking or waiting for the opportunity to talk, there is great opportunity for the listener. Someone who takes the time to listen to what others are saying. And what they actually mean. Someone who takes the time to align different opinions and objectives. Someone that truly understands. And jointly creates solutions that integrate all relevant perspectives and needs.


Good listeners ask for help

I’m not suggesting that we provide everybody around us with red and yellow cards! Nor that we all cease to speak. But I do suggest that we actively promote listening. Most of us would like to be good listeners. We just need a little help. When I start working with new teams we agree on a sign or cue to signal a ‘listening’ moment. I’ve seen a wide variety of such signals. From gentle nudges like the wise owl-cuddle-toy that is quietly passed around to strident buzzers. If you jointly choose the signal that fits the culture and setup of the group, it will work like a charm and will be fun too. Also, make it a habit to agree on actively exchanging the most surprising and helpful findings you had at the end of a particular meeting or conversation. Knowing that you will share your insights puts you automatically in heightened ‘listening mode’.

As students, we absorb information and allow it to shape our approach and views. There is no reason to stop listening in a professional context. As Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, put it two and a half thousand years ago: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” I could not agree more. As an entrepreneur and as a parent.