I spent a lot of time over the holidays catching up with my family and friends. It seems forever ago, but as I reflect on how enjoyable as it was, and it was enjoyable, I was struck by how few people in the world would be considered “good” listeners. This led me to reflect on how many of founders I meet who are so busy being in in “pitch mode” when speaking with investors, customers, or potential employees, that they forget to listen actively.
Before relating this back to the start-up world, what are the common habits of bad listeners?
- Talking about themselves… excessively. Most people are too busy talking about themselves that they are incapable of taking a genuine interest in someone else. This leads to elongated, agonizing monologues that removes the opportunity for any genuine exchange of ideas.
- Relating what you say back to their life. Also known as “one-uppers,” these people immediately interrupt what you’re saying to somehow relate it back to themselves, implying that they have a better or more interesting experience with the subject at hand. While their experiences may indeed be more interesting, as they do this they are constantly thinking ways they could chime in with a personal anecdote rather than actually processing what the other person is saying.
- Changing the subject. If someone changes the subject while you’re talking, they either have no idea what you’re talking about, or simply have no interest in what you’re saying. In both case scenarios, the person is not listening actively. This also makes the person seem careless, and unable to connect emotionally or cognitively with another human being.
- Saying “yeah” or “uh-huh” to hurry you along. A nod or yeah can be a helpful social cue to say you are listening, but when over used it is a clear sign that the person is not absorbing any of the information you’re sharing. Along with the other bad listening habits, rushing someone along when they’re speaking hinders their willingness to listen to you when you speak. Bad listeners wait impatiently for their turn to speak, and still expect undivided attention.
With that said, it isn’t easy to be a good listener. Research says we talk at 130 wpm, listen at 400 wpm, and think at 1000 wpm. So even if there is genuine interest in what one is saying, it’s extremely easy for the mind to wander.
Active listening takes effort, patience, and understanding. In this Wall Street Journal article, Graham D. Bodie, a communications professor at LSU, states that “active listening starts with the real desire to help another person think through their feelings. Don’t try to fix the problem right out of the gate, and don’t rush things.” It all starts with being genuinely curious about what the other person has to say and asking open-ended questions, but having good body language, maintaining eye contact and giving well-timed verbal cues also helps signify that you are engaged in a conversation and gives the speaker encouragement to continue confidently.
So… why is this important in regards to founders?
In so many pitches I receive, the meeting starts with a conversation, but then out come the slides and the founder moves into “pitch mode” and the listening and exchange of ideas stops. No matter how well honed a pitch it is, this represents a lost opportunity as I believe how founders listen and take in feedback is a meaningful indicator of whether or not their company will succeed. Point 5 in this article is right on. People who are naturally curious see conversations as learning opportunities. And founders who are naturally curious are going to be more successful. Too many founders are not open to criticism and potential change, which could help them shape and sharpen their idea, and many resist open-ended questions and conversations as they feel they won’t like the answers or that they can’t control the conversation. [As a side note, I also see the reverse where founders take everything a potential investor says as gospel and they agree with everything. This is even worse.]
Active listening, and the genuine conversation it begets, on the other hand is is not only a sign of respect, but a sign of intellect and it shows you are a learning machine with an ability to accept and consider input and be open-minded, all of which demonstrates strength, not weakness or vulnerability. Further, particularly for early stage companies in a fund raising setting, a genuine conversation builds relationships and deepens a connection, which is ultimately the basis upon which many investment decisions are made. The converse also applies. A potential investor who is not a good listener will be a terrible board member and advisor as they will never have taken the time to truly understand the issues you are facing and even if they do, they will be too busy promoting their world view for their advice to be meaningful.
Outside of the investor setting, good listening skills are even more important when recruiting or speaking with potential customers. If you take an active interest in a potential employee and listen carefully you will come away with a much better sense for how they think, what is important to them and whether they will culturally fit your company. With customers, if you immediately go into pitch mode you lose a valuable opportunity to let the customer articulate their issues, priorities, and organizational processes (including how they buy) and miss, as a result, valuable opportunities to shape and modify your approach to best fit their needs.
If founders took a step back and listened more often, it would benefit them greatly, not only as the founder of a company, but as a person as well. Listening actively will help all of us build our relationships, our businesses, and our knowledge. It would also make for a more enjoyable holiday break.