Listening is underrated. Unlike vision, hearing works in the dark and around corners. We hear 20 to 100 times faster than we see, and what we hear stays in our heads longer, often evoking strong emotions — just listen to your favorite band from college. However, for many of us, we don’t begin to harness this superpower until the age we begin to lose it. Hearing, like youth, is wasted on the young. We all hear things; there’s no corner of the globe that’s free from the vibrations that manifest in sound. So we must decide what to listen to. But many of us aren’t listening, and that dampens our abilities and undermines our relationships.
“Leadership = Listenership”
That caption is cheesy and off-brand, but it’s late here. As a younger founder/CEO, I believed leadership was getting a quick take on a situation, pondering it for several seconds, and then expectorating a confident opinion. Like a fraternity brother who owns his vomiting, with the bravado of a middleweight holding up the belt awarded for giving another boxer early-onset Parkinson’s. Leadership, for me, was rallying troops into battle. Except I hadn’t thought through the strategy and wasn’t even sure who or where the enemy was.
All that mattered was inspiring action aligned with my (emphasis on “my”) view. Lately I’ve been seeing these TikTok videos (I think the CCP is boosting them to show how stupid we are) where an American family lights a pyrotechnic that becomes an out-of-control hose, spraying fire. As a young leader, I was the firework, directionless and loud, demanding everyone’s attention.
Levi Strauss & Co.
I was 26 when I started my first company, a strategy firm called Prophet. Our first big client was Levi Strauss & Co. I attended several board meetings, and what struck me, other than how opulent big company board meetings are, was the CEO and chairman mainly asked questions and listened. They weren’t there to advocate or cajole … just to listen.
Around that time, I joined the Young Entrepreneurs Organization, where I was assigned a mentor. Mine was Bob Swanson, the founder and CEO of Genentech. He shadowed me for a day, not saying a word, just observing. At the end of the day, I prepared for a mix of professional therapy and a validation of my general awesomeness. He said, “You need to listen more,” and nothing else.
Good leaders are known for producing great results. And greatness is in the agency of others. A leader’s opportunity to take the field with the all-star team is a function of retention — the loyalty of the most talented players, who have more opportunities to go somewhere else. Their loyalty is a function of the leader’s appreciation, economic and psychic. Great leaders listen, then tangibly demonstrate they understand someone’s unique needs. Some people want to manage others, some would like to work abroad, have more balance, or see their name in lights (be quoted in industry media), etc.
In Peter Drucker’s classic article on executive leadership, he lists eight critical practices, and the first two are questions to ask. His concluding advice: Listen first, speak last. Madeleine Albright put it this way: “You can lead, but you must listen.” A host of research studies back them up. Good listeners make better leaders.
Where Listening Goes to Die
Add this to the list of ways social media is ruining society: It’s skewing our perception of the relative value of listening vs. speaking. Social media is a contact sport in which “takes” are the game ball. It’s taught us (incorrectly) that all our opinions matter. Worse, that everyone needs to hear and comment on them. (Pro tip: Words are wind.) Do I really need to express my outrage, and do you really need to hear it?
Most humans suffer from a lack of impulse control, ignorance, and ignorance of our (wait for it) ignorance — and social media amplifies these flaws. Going public on an important/sensitive topic you have no domain expertise in is a transfer of value, a trade of reputation and unnecessary risk for ear-cleaner adverts. Justin Bieber’s Instagram post “Praying for Israel” lost some of its force when people noticed the background image of a destroyed city was a photograph of Gaza. Social media has not only elevated virtue signaling to pseudo-importance, it has weaponized it. People are losing their jobs because they feel compelled to make “statements.”
The online obsession with “statements” in the aftermath of terrible events is the daily experience of social writ large. Twitter’s basic structure is about speaking, not listening — the platform’s formal innovation was that it made replies first-class citizens, equal to posts. Social gave everyone a voice, but it blocked our ear canals. The more complex or painful or shocking an event, the more it behooves us to “listen first, speak last.” But we don’t. There’s likes to be had, and if you’re a semifamous DJ, your fans need to know what you think about Gaza.
Posting your view on an issue not only reveals your position, but also cements it. You can inadvertently back yourself into a corner. I see this all the time — someone takes a position without thinking, just as part of the flow of the conversation; it’s challenged; they defend it; and within minutes, that passing opinion becomes a central tenet of their being. This is part of our larger bias toward consistency, our need to see our words and actions as coherent. Speaking hinders subsequent listening. Social media makes this worse, encouraging us to record our every passing thought, and then binding us to it, lest the Guardians of Gotcha come for us with “receipts.”
Speaking on a hair trigger also makes us more prone to misinformation. If you listen for support of your views rather than illumination or evolution, you’re less discerning of sources and claims. Just as you can’t breathe and eat at the same time, you can’t listen when you’re speaking.
To be clear, everyone has the right to speak. But before you decide to share your views on a charged topic with the 5 billion people on social media, ask yourself three questions: Do I have something to offer? Do I have a personal or professional connection? Is it worth the risk? If the answer to any of these is no, perhaps take a beat before speaking.
First Wives Club and Parent Hack
I was married to a wonderful woman — smart, nice, fun to be around … generally impressive. She was also in touch with her feelings, which I was not. She would regularly express something she was upset about. My response was to manage and deflect. It didn’t matter what she felt or even how I felt, her comments were incoming missiles, to be shot down or diverted. This resulted in a relationship that was harmonious but increasingly distant. She wasn’t in a relationship with me, but someone managing the relationship. The truth built up, and up, and then burst.
Listening alone makes feedback more effective and engenders loyalty. If I want to give my sons advice, what to tell them is the easy part — they’re such dopes. There are only so many problems, and young people have more in common than they realize. It’s getting them to listen that’s the trick. The parent hack is to ask questions before we start preaching. As my dad says, communication is with the listener, and if you don’t soften up their defenses with active listening, you’ll never get to the beach.
Listening is a gift. When people are in pain, in doubt, or struggling in any way, they may legitimately need to express themselves. For every celebrity village idiot who feels the need to express their ill-formed opinions on social media, thousands of people with an actual stake in events use platforms as an outlet for grief and rage. (But then the platforms feast off this pain and convert it into fodder for someone’s else’s take. And the wheel spins.)
The urge to express oneself when facing a dilemma or in pain is real. I communicate for a living, so I have to resist the need to take the floor and begin speaking in every situation. Something that helps is that, as I age, I’m becoming more introverted, which (oddly) has strengthened my relationships. Today I’m more prone to listen than to perform.
The delta between hearing and listening is attention, being present. This is difficult in the age of devices, but respect is what makes the other party feel heard. Sam Bankman-Fried would play video games on Zoom calls, and our idolatry of innovators mistook this bug for a feature, a sign of his genius. No, he’s not “thinking different.” He’s just an asshole.
Time & Care
When people seek advice, it often isn’t advice they want, but someone to listen. A good listener — someone who is present, who asks probing questions, who doesn’t use the person’s pain as a starting gun for them to speak — is a balm for anxiety. That’s why a good listener makes a useful partner in problem-solving. Some of the best mentorship moments I’ve experienced, on both sides, have been when the mentor doesn’t offer advice, but expresses affection by focusing solely on you and what you are saying.
The best advice you can give is to listen, which is to tell that person that they matter. The most effective treatment for anybody’s grief or anxiety is time and care. The former takes care of itself, and the latter can be achieved when we tell someone we love them, without words. By listening.
Life is so rich,
P.S. The Prof G Pod is now on YouTube — check out our channel here.
P.P.S. Yoshua Bengio is the godfather of artificial intelligence. I’ll be listening to his concerns about the ethics of AI (and, sure, contributing a few thoughts of my own) on Nov. 21. Sign up here — seats are limited.