Mix Strong Opinions With Big Open Ears

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One of the things I love best about my Foundry Group partners is that they each have strong opinions. Another thing I love about them is that they each have big open ears.

I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.

As I’ve written before, I love working with learning machines and silent killers. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who combine these traits.

I know a lot of people with strong opinions who think they are good listeners, but all you need to do is listen to a conversation between them and someone else to watch them talking all over the other person. Or asserting the same point over and over again, often using slightly different language, but not engaging in a process of trying to actually learn from the other person’s response. This is especially vexing to me when the person with strong opinions claims to have heard the other person (as in “I hear you, ok, that makes sense”) but then 24 hours later Mr. Strong Opinion is back on his original opinion with no explanation.

In contrast, I know a lot of strong listeners who won’t express an opinion. The VC archetype that I describe as Mr. Socrates is a classic example of this. I expect most entrepreneurs can give many examples of them being on the receiving end of a stream of questions without any expressed perspective, null hypothesis, or summary of reaction. I hate these types of board meeting discussions – where the VCs just keep asking questions but never actually suggesting anything. There’s not wrong with inquiry and I definitely have my moments of “I don’t get this – I need to ask more questions” but in the absence of a feedback loop in the discussion, it’s very tiresome to me.

Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.

I’ve always had strong opinions. I can be a loudmouth and occasionally end up in lecture mode where I’m just trying to hammer home my point. My anecdotes and stories often run longer than they should (I blame my father for teaching me this particular “skill.”) But I always try to listen, am always willing to change my opinion based on new data, or explain my position from a different perspective after assimilating new data. When I realize I’m bloviating, I often call myself publicly on it in an effort to shift to listening mode. And I always try to learn from every interaction I have, no matter how satisfying or unenjoyable it is.

Do you have strong opinions AND big open ears?

  • I hope so. If I don’t think I do, I either ask a question-or get another opinion.

  • I completely agree with this. I think the part about strong opinions actually goes un-noticed too often. People clearly should always have open ears and be good listeners, but an opinion can be equally important, especially in startups. I wrote a post about this on my personal blog a few months ago if you’re interested in reading. http://www.michaeldempsey.me/post/62155063515/the-upside-of-being-opinionated

  • Brian Grega

    Two ears, but only one mouth, should be used accordingly. But, as Brad correctly points out, it’s more than listening, it is absorbing, considering and being involved in a discussion that matters.

  • That’s a lovely way to describe it, Brad. Thanks a lot.

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  • I am definitely one of those strong opinionated types so whenever I find myself in a disagreement with someone, I close my eyes and imagine myself in their body. I then take a look at myself through their eyes and try to observe myself as objectively as possible. Almost always, I see myself as being stubborn and unreasonable.

    When you are able to see yourself objectively, it really is an eye opener and you will be shocked at what you can discover.

  • Something I’ve learned and am still learning is that communication is almost always about feelings and the needs behind them. If I’m mindful of this and realize that I’m co-authoring the story of the conversation then I tend to listen much better and not lecture and analyze so much; if not I’m just data without a soul, steamrolling everyone’s needs including my own.

  • RBC

    You’ve just described the best sales people. You need to ask you clients loads of questions to find out what their needs/problems really are, but before launching into a stream of questions you need to make sure you are respectful of them, and add value beyond just the product you are selling.

  • The best thing I learned at Mitsubishi Corporation was to be comfortable listening to the other person taking a minute of silence to reflect and then ask questions/respond. Jumping in and not letting the other person finish or barely finish is considered worse than rude, its a sign of stupidity.

    This makes many American’s feel very nervous. Try it. You will see people try and fill the silence with stupid drivel. To truly listen one cannot be thinking about a response. One must be completely focused on what the person is saying. Then it can be processed and a response made.

  • Joseph Jones

    I have room for improvement in “strong opinions.” For example, recently I had a product-related conversation with the team. A team member said there’s little room for growth in online advertising. I had a different opinion based on market research — the display advertising market is expected to grow at 11% CAGR over the next five years. Yet I didn’t say anything… I realized he wasn’t looking to be convinced with actual data; he was trying to share his view/opinion on why we shouldn’t go into the advertising market. Ultimately, I didn’t share my knowledge, because it’s more important to me to build a team that’s passionate about their product, than it is for my idea to be accepted by the team. With that said, I’m always looking for constructive feedback on improving myself. Thoughts?

  • In my experience, group openness and receptivity to dissenting opinions is often a function of the meeting facilitator’s approach. The leader’s style sets the pattern that others will follow.

    If they create an environment of respect, good discourse can take place.

    If they instead allow(or encourage) individuals to “win” points to further their agenda, sincere dialogue becomes difficult.

  • ctwoodnyc

    It’s hard for me to take someone seriously if they’re not a good listener. I want to work with people who can listen, analyze, respond.

    When someone is not a great listener they can’t help but push their own agenda, pushing collaboration out the window.