Why listening is the number one skill in business

Yesterday was World Teacher Day, which got me thinking. Teachers after all, famously impart knowledge; for the most part, they speak and we listen. Type ‘famous orators’ into Google and you’ll find a million mentions, from Pericles to Nelson Mandela to Greta Thunberg. We are obsessed, especially in business, with people good at holding the room, saying cool sh*t and blowing minds with their presentation skills. 

But who is the world’s greatest listener? There’s barely any search data for that. Sure, you get ‘famous people known for being good listeners’, but that’s not the equivalent.

There should be a Listening Awards. That’d be worth winning. In fact I think I’ll stage it next year…

I guess that ‘to listen’ means different things to different people. 

To some: “I’ll just wait for you to finish so I can say what I already had in mind.”

To others: “I’m half-listening but I’ll jump in to try and fix your problem.”

I used to be both of the above types. I was self-crowned King of Waffle; always ready with opinions, advice or a witty retort. But since running a business for 16 years, I’ve learned to keep my trap shut. I’d argue that wise people tend to say less (an empty barrel makes the most noise, after all). These days I’m aiming to be more wise.

My business, Clear Ideas, is invested in creating ‘thinking environments’  – a concept I learned about in Nancy Klein’s book ‘Time To Think’ (1999). Humans are natural problem-solvers but now society and social media invites us to solve ALL problems; to finish each other’s sentences and to fill every damn space with rhetoric or response. It’s becoming impossible to think deeply.

Studies show that people become cleverer when you allow them to think. Generally, if people are given space to ruminate and reflect, they become better problem-solvers. So I make it my job to hold a space for people in which they get better at that.

Some say deep listening is “to listen with the possibility of having one’s mind changed”. So unless I’m asked, I don’t often say what I think. I want to know what you think.

Listening is a real skill. It’s a full-body endeavour. I find people shut down fast if you jump in or offer your opinion straight away. Primarily, people just need a keen ear and a sounding board so they have the space to articulate their ideas about their new enterprise. It’s their passion, after all. And if you don’t listen properly the first time, will they trust you or ask you to listen a second time?

This week, try to use deep, active listening in at least one conversation. 

What did you notice?