I’m all ears, baby. Credit Vince O’Sullivan. Photo re-used under CC license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/.

3 Reasons I’ve Learned To Actually Listen

After jumping in the proverbial deep end of venture capital, I’ve spent the last few months listening more than I have in years. And I have a lot more listening to do. In fact, I think of it as a secret weapon in a line-of-work lampooned for encouraging oversized egos and boundless love for the sound of one’s own voice.

So, I give you in reverse order of importance, the reasons I, you, your co-founder, or anyone needs to actually* listen.

*actually- here used to describe not only hearing what’s said, but engaging with both the person speaking and what’s being said.

3. You’ll be heard.

While counter-intuitive given the growth-hacking, multi-channel approach to being “heard” by customers, the space that listening creates in a person-to-person conversation allows you to be heard, too.

But human beings function differently. We can consume visual and auditory information at the same time, but learning design research shows that multiple visual or sound inputs reduce memory and learning outcomes (don’t just take my word for it, Susan Ambrose knows). Of course, conversations aren’t quizzed, but there’s a parallel to be drawn here about information overload.

Communication can happen when I shut up my expectations and ego. I can learn more about that angel investor likes to invest in and how, where she likes to spend her down time. She’ll likely remember the few things I share because she felt heard, and I didn’t bombard her with extra stuff she didn’t need.

Cut out the noise. Don’t become it.

2. You’ll answer the question that’s asked.

Communication relies on a mutual understanding of content and intent, that overlap between what the speaker delivers and what she wants that to mean for her listener. I’ve seen the latter trump the former- a word of two out of place in verbal conversation with an established rapport is glossed over in favor of what “you meant to say.” Without that empathetic connection, though, the benefit of the doubt is slimmer, and even slimmer still in an early conversation about funding.

I have plenty of conversational dynamics to get into after 37 half-hour phone screens for the accelerator this week, but one theme emerged. The best interviewees consistently took the time to actively listen to the questions asked. People who rephrased questions ended up launching themselves in the right direction, rather than squandering time and attention on a tangent. That second mode comes across as best jumpy-puppy, or at worst deliberately evasive, neither is compelling.

Taking a deep breath before answering and asking for clarification in a smart way meant that these people had a better sense of the intent of the questioner, and a better shot at knocking our collective socks off.

What you think you hear can be clouded by your biases.

  1. You’ll hear things you don’t want to know, but need to.

One of the most gumption-intensive things I’ve done in the last 9 months was listen to the tough love dished out by a mentor. I did not want to hear how much elements of my style (which I already had a sinking feeling about) were screwing up my ability to do my best work and be my best self. The self-protectionist part of me wanted nothing better than to shove my fingers in my ears and sing a little self-congratulatory song. But I didn’t, by some small miracle. Hearing things about myself I’m not proud of gave me a great starting point for growth.

That admission isn’t as brave or as public as what a group of founders do every month. At 7 am in the basement home of TSF in Durham, they took 2.5 hours to hear what was going on for each other in getting customers signed up. Some of them heard forehead-smacking, cringe-worthy dissections of very recent email campaigns. No one wants to start their Friday morning that way, but they saw that their startups’ needs are different. They showed that they I admire these founders’ ability to sacrifice their desire for affirmation in favor of getting things right.

Listening builds character. And better companies.

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When your company, or your portfolio, is riding on understanding people, listening is the only option.

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Thanks for reading! I’m all ears at @LizzyHazeltine.