Mentors 5/18: Listen Too

As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.

Item 5 is “Listen Too.”

Pause and ponder for a minute.

Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.

There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.

In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.

The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.

Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.

But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.

  • This is one of the hardest skill to learn. We are taught to read, write but we are never taught how to listen effectively, empathetically and to give the psychological air to the other person who is talking. I have tried mentally practising “talking stick” communication i.e try to phrase, emphasize the point of the other clearly before saying anything. It is hard, it is a skill and it has to be learnt if you really want to make an impact as a mentor. IMHO, this is probably the hardest skill given the role one takes as Mentor.

  • yes. it also helps to replay to them what you “heard” to make sure it is the same of what they said.

    • Rick

      If people would all take the time to ensure they’re “on the same page.” The world would be a much better place!

    • yep – “active listening”

  • Listening mindfully is tough – at least for me it is as I’m so often thinking of what’s next. Listening is not only a valuable practice in business/mentoring, but also in relationships #startuplife

  • Rick Brennan

    In the late 80’s I worked for a large company in Silicon Valley that was struggling to foster innovation. The company culture was dominated by Type A personalities. Opinions were strongly held, and listening was in short supply. The CEO hired a consultant who, at the time, had not yet made a name for himself – Peter Senge. Peter believed ideas were trapped in the organization at the level of the middle managers (team leaders) and below, and he got the ok to work with us to teach us a technique called “dialogue” to bring those ideas to he surface. Senge had refined dialogue from the writings of David Bohm, a leading quantum physicist. The practice was Zen-like, involving emptying our minds, first, then contributing to the discussion without advocating a position. After a person contributed a thought, Peter forced us to allow time to pass – enough time that we could fully listen, then ponder the implications of the point. Dialogue was and is a powerful skill hard to cultivate and master in our current fast-paced culture. It was also the most valuable skill anyone has ever taught me. Here’s an excerpt from Peter Senge’s writing on dialogue:

  • I really learned this when I worked for Mitsubishi Corporation. In meetings there was a very strong belief in that you should ponder what the person was saying in a moment of silence before you responded. If you responded instantly it was assumed you weren’t truly listening and therefore it was disrespectful to the person speaking.

  • Rick

    I know I talk too much. My mind speed seems to always be too fast. Taking a minute to internally sync with others’ speed makes for a much better conversation.

  • I find it particularly challenging in a group setting. There’s rarely a pause as it only takes one person to break the silence – having an official or unofficial moderator can be helpful in those situations.

  • DaveJ

    Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.

  • As noted by others, this is a skill that needs effort to be good at, and constant effort to be great. Interestingly your post on mindfulness offers a useful perspective…. mindfulness requires that you are in the present, the “right now”, not the future (even if it is the immediate future). Good listening also requires you to be “in the now”. Mindfulness requires you to make your mind still, yet open. Good listening also requires that you still your mind and open your mind. Mindfulness asks that you deal with that which is right before your (or in you). Good listening means that you focus on that which is right before you as well. Because “good listening” is portrayed as a skill, it is often approached as something that can be dealt with via techniques or methods. From my perspective, the best approach is to improve your mindfulness.