Just Listening

Nearly every morning when I’m at home, I take my 55-pound rescue dog, Birdie, for a 45+ minute walk. We typically cover two to three miles.

This is not our typical morning walk, this is at 11,500 feet in Colorado. But you get the idea.

I don’t wear headphones, and I don’t listen to anything. It’s just time for us to walk together, with her on and off the leash searching for squirrels and bunnies, and me just walking.

Near the end of a recent walk, in a patch of woods near our local library, I took a moment to stop and listen.

I realized that the sound of crickets was as loud as it might be in the middle of the night. A few birds chirped. I could hear the hum of the occasional car driving my in the busy street nearby.

My experience of stopping, and noticing, was remarkable. It felt like someone had flipped a switch and turned on all of these sounds that had, of course, been there all along. They had been drowned out, this day and every day, by the endless chatter in my head.

The fact is that we regularly, habitually, separate ourselves from quiet and from being present.

We scan social media and our email. We reflexively pop in headphones whenever we walk anywhere. And, even when we have a chance to experience quiet, we let our heads be filled with an endless cycle of repetitive thoughts.

It can feel difficult to break this pattern, but intentionally listening is actually an easy door to walk through.

Listening gives us something specific to pay attention to, and that something is full of beauty and is ever-changing.

Why not try it, right now?

Wherever and whenever you’re reading this, try this: take 30 seconds, right now to listen.  Give yourself this moment.





Maybe you heard silence, maybe you heard the whir of air conditioning, maybe you heard the bustle around you, maybe you even heard a bird chirping.

This level of connection to the present is available to us every second of every day.

Try not to miss it.

Three Vignettes About Listening

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “listening” really means.

The point of entry is the literal act of paying attention to the words another person says. But true listening is hearing what people are really saying, either through their words or, as often, in spite of what they’ve said.

Here are three stories to get into the multiple layers of listening.

The Parmesan

One night, my 11-year-old daughter and I were standing in the kitchen. I looked at her and said “could you please open the fridge and get out the parmesan cheese?”

I turned back to chopping vegetables. 30 seconds later she was standing in the spot where she’d been, without any cheese.

When I asked her what was going on, it became clear that she simply hadn’t heard the words I was saying—her mind was somewhere else. She literally did not listen.

That’s OK, she’s only 11.

Dogs and COVID

The next morning, she and I took our dog out for a walk, and we ran into an older man coming out of his car with a dog we’ve never met before. The man seemed a bit hesitant at first, staying on his side of the car, but the dogs’ tails started wagging and I assumed everything was OK.

“She’s very friendly,” I said, referring to my dog.

“Oh it’s fine,” he replied, “and anyway, they don’t transmit COVID.”

The injury

My 15-year-old daughter has become a serious runner, and, at the start of the school year, she’d been running 6 or 7 days a week. This included cross country meets on Saturdays followed by 6+ mile runs on Sundays, only to start practice again for the week on Monday.

Three weeks into the season, she got injured. She’s spent the last two months trying to navigate the fine line between recovery and not dropping out of training.

We had multiple conversations about how best to manage the situation, and at various points my wife or I offered to talk to her coach, because we know it can be difficult for a high school kid to speak up for their own needs with adults.

Every time we made that offer, my daughter would resist or shut down.

Until finally, in that moment of silence, my wife said, “We’re not going to tell your Coach we don’t want you to run, and we’re not going to get in the way of you practicing. We just want to share with him what we’re seeing so we can all work together.”

Three levels of listening

The starting point for listening is simply hearing the words people say to us. This is harder than it sounds in our attention-grabbing, device-filled world. It is your version of “that person just asked me to get the Parmesan cheese.”

Beyond that, there’s the basic work of connecting the dots between what people are saying and what might really be on their minds. Outlier, non sequitur comments (“dogs don’t transmit COVID”) are a place to start: “he’s probably not worried about the dogs; he’s worried about himself.” While that particular connection may seem obvious, I’ve watched how literal my kids are in these situations and started to wonder how and when the entry-level skill of “don’t look for meaning just in the words that person said” gets developed. How often do we see the comic book thought bubbles above people’s heads when the speak? I know I was extremely literal for a long time, and that I often defended my non-listening with a version of, “well, if that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say it?” The miss was nearly always mine, not his, in these situations (let alone the extent to which that question is a wonderful expression of white male privilege….)

Finally, we get to the higher-level work: not only tracking both the words being said and the meaning that is unsaid, but finding a way to bring the unsaid into the conversation in a tactful and non-confrontational way. This is the art of shifting a discussion from what is being said to what has intentionally been left aside because it is too difficult to bring up.

This sort of reframing is where real connection and real breakthroughs come from. The experience of someone paying close enough attention that they say out loud the thing we were thinking, the fear that we were nurturing…this act makes a person feel seen in a profound way.

In the end, it is our undivided attention, and the expression of that attention, that are the greatest gifts we can give someone.

6 is 4

rothiemurchus biking
View from the trail on our mountain bike ride

It’s the end of my summer holiday, and I am in the Scottish Highlands on a fabulous off-road mountain bike ride with my daughter. The scenery is breathtaking – layers of grey mountains in the distance, the ground covered in purple heather and ancient ferns amidst pine groves, with not a soul as far as the eye can see.

We come to a fork in the road. The path to the left is the short route back to the bike rental shop. The path to the right takes the long way around, an additional 6 miles. My daughter has been quiet on the ride, she seems in good spirits, but I suspect her energy is flagging. At the same time, I’d love nothing more than to take the long way home and steal an extra hour in this magical place.

I’ve already checked in with her a few times to see how she is feeling, and whether she’d like to stop for lunch. She’s said she is “good” and not hungry, gives a flash of a smile, and we’ve pedaled on.

At the fork, after another non-committal “good,” I ask her, “on a scale of 1 to 10, how energetic are you feeling?”

“Um…six?” she said.

We stand there a bit longer and take another drink of water.

Then I look at her again and she says, “Well, actually, four.”

We walk up to the fork, put our bikes down, and plop down on the mossy ground under some pine trees. We eat the three sandwiches we have packed along with two apples. We relax, we talk, and, a half hour later, we head off on the short path home.

The gap between my daughter’s 6 and 4 response is just one representation of the distance that exists between what someone feels and what they tell us in order to please us.

Especially when we are in positions of authority, we consistently get rose-tinted responses to our questions. This means that not only do we have to ask for feedback, we also have to create relationships that nudge that feedback towards being as honest and open as possible. And, even when we get this all right, to get an accurate barometer of what’s really going on we must remember to discount the good and amplify critiques.

For years I fell into the trap of a self-serving story about “honesty” and “directness.” I tried to be honest and direct with the people around me, and I expected them to do the same. When, after the fact, I learned that someone hadn’t told me “the truth,” I pinned the blame on them—”they had the chance to speak up, and they should have,” I thought, self-righteously.

This mindset is willfully blind to what it means to be in a position of privilege and authority. To truly listen to those around us, whether colleagues or friends or beneficiaries of the programmatic work that we do, we must meet people on their terms, not ours, and understand how power dynamics and culture color all that we do and say.

If we’re lucky, and if we do our jobs well, the gap between what we’re told and reality will only be the distance between 6 and 4.  Better yet, the longer we listen and the more space we create, the more likely it is that someone will tell us that they’re actually feeling like a “4.”

Listening with intent to change

I’ve written before about “listening,” which I think of as one of the most important and under-appreciated skills out there.

The learning journey that we are on requires us to truly hear what those around us have to say and to deeply integrate that perspective into who we are and what we do – all while maintaining a strong sense of our own values, grounding and perspective.

But the word “listening” isn’t always imbued with much meaning. Often “she’s a great listener” is meant to imply “she’s caring, attentive, and will be a good shoulder to cry on.”

Listening is much much more than that: it’s an attitude, a mindset, a skill to be cultivated.

Recently, Pat Tierney, an Acumen advisor and a former U.S. Army Colonel, told me about his desire to “listen with intent to change.” I love that. Bringing together “listening” with a specific intent conveys how active, engaged, and ready to act a great listener has to be. A great listener is not a passive receptacle, conveying attentiveness and caring.

Yes, we have to care, but not (just) to convey empathy or support. We care because what is being said matters deeply to us. We care because we enter each conversation with a sincere openness to new ideas. We care because we have a real desire not to reinforce what we brought into the conversation but instead to have our point of view altered by what we are hearing.

As Steven Covey reminds us, so often, when someone else is speaking, we are “listening with the intent to reply,” using the passing seconds to formulate what we’ll say next instead of tuning in to the present moment and to what is being shared with us.

To truly listen required us to begin at the beginning: to listen with intent to change.

And then we must do much more. We must convey, with both verbal and nonverbal cues, that we are present and that we care. We must actually be open-minded, entering each conversation with strong ideas, loosely held. We must, through all of our actions – including what we say and how we say it – set our counterpart at ease, so their truth can unfold.

And, ultimately, we must let new ideas to penetrate us, so that we can translate our intent to change into the slow but inexorable process of long-term personal transformation.

What they say, what they mean

“I’m not saying that…” = “I AM saying that…”

“By the way…” = “The most important thing to me is…”

“I’ll be brief…” = “You’d better make yourself comfortable.”

“Oh, one last thing…” = “Listen up.”

“I’d like this presentation to be a real dialogue…” = “Shut up and listen…”

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

The main reason, also, by the way

I used to think listening to people had to be pretty easy since, I figured, it was their job to say what they meant.

That feels like one of the biggest misconceptions I carried around (for way too long) –  it’s flawed on numerous levels, including but not limited to its American-ness (since culturally we value directness more than just about anyone).  It also willfully ignores how people come to conclusions and how people (especially persuasive people) explain their conclusions.

Put it this way: if Jonathan Haidt is right (and I think he is), we make decisions with our hearts (maybe our gut, or our elephant) and then explain and rationalize them with our heads (the rider).  To me that means that what we say to explain these decisions is necessarily a rational (re)construction of truth, rather than the truth itself: we will construct a story that uses the core truth as a springboard and then assembles the pieces that will be, in our judgment, most persuasive and palatable to the listener.

With this in mind, when someone is explaining something (a plan, a proposal, a decision) to me and he says…:

  • The main reason we should do this is….
  • also it has to do with….
  • and, by the way, there’s this one other small reason….

…it seems to me that the most logical thing to expect is that people’s “main” and “also” reasons are the series of facts/explanations that will be most convincing to me.

This makes the “by the way” a great candidate for what’s really going on.

Your (brand) essence is not an inert element

For many years, as is typical in more junior roles in most big companies, I spent most of my time inside the organization.  Working hard, doing client or customer work, but really on the inside.  From there I had a view of what my company was and what it represented in the world, but that view was mostly informed by whatever the company wanted to tell its employees.

But then I got into the real world: I interacted with customers, funders, competitors; I gave talks on my company’s behalf and saw the reaction people had (good and bad) during and after my remarks; I was required, day in and day out, to understand and distill who we were and what we represented in the world; and then I heard back, just as frequently, whether and how what I was saying resonated with people.  If I listened hard, new truths emerged.

In the words, reactions, challenges, and excitement you hear back, you learn a lot.  You discover surprising things that you knew and that were dormant.  You connect dots in unexpected ways.  You see yourself through other people’s eyes, and have the chance to bring that energy back into the organization.

By spending time right at the edge of your organization, you react to the outside world, and in that process of reaction, your brand and its positioning change, evolve, and sharpen.  Your brand has an active reaction every time it has one of these interactions.

I used to think that CEO’s like Jeff Immelt spent a lot of time with customers just to hear the truth about what GE did and didn’t deliver on in the customers’ eyes.  I’ve begun to understand that it’s only through spending time looking outside that Jeff, or any of us, can figure out who we really are, what our company or organization represents, and what it can become.


Do you understand the words…

Listening is probably the most important and least developed skill for creating strong relationships and connecting with people.

I’m reminded of the great moment in the movie Rush Hour, in which Chris Tucker’s character shouts at Jackie Chan, “Do you UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of my MOUTH???!!!” (it’s funnier when he says it), because we often fail to do just that.

The stage is set before the meeting, when you decide, out loud or quietly, to care or not to care about what the person you’re meeting has to say.  How much you (pre)judge will have a huge impact on your head space as you go into the meeting.  Just think of the attitude you adopt when sitting down for a conversation with a mentor versus when you sit down with a cranky customer who, you feel, complains all the time.  Night and day, for most of us, in terms of how much real listening we do.

And then in the meeting itself, it starts with actually hearing the words that are coming out of the person’s mouth.  What mostly gets in the way here is:

  1. Thinking about the last thing the person said, instead of what they’re saying right now
  2. Thinking about the last thing YOU said, and how you could have said it differently
  3. Dreaming up the next clever thing you’re going to say
  4. Just plain being distracted

For inspiration, remember one of the most basic techniques for remembering names when you meet someone new.  When someone introduces themselves to you, you repeat their name back to them a few times.  “Hi Celeste, it’s very nice to meet you Celeste.”

You not necessarily going to repeat back what people are saying (though it’s amazing how often it is appropriate to say, “So what I’m hearing you say is…..”), but you can bring that same level of attention to what the person is saying.  Plus, the simple act of deciding, no matter how awkward it feels, to pay more attention will (a)Probably force you over time to get into the habit; and (b)Make the person feel like she’s being heard.

(by the way, this all applies equally well in job interviews, in first meetings, in conversations with work colleagues, with your spouse, with your children.  It’s a universal skill.)

So before your next meeting, think about Rush Hour.  Because having a smile on your face doesn’t hurt either…and think, “Yes, I UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of your MOUTH!!”

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Ask 3 questions to practice listening

There are gobs of advice out there about how to communicate better – whether in meetings or in presenting to big groups or even just in email.  This is important stuff, some of which I’ve blogged about before (most popular seem to be Start with the Punchline, Please and 10 Obvious Tips for Email (that Most People Don’t Follow).

What about listening?  Does anyone out there teach how to listen better?  Does anyone even ask it of you?  It’s amazing when I reflect on my MBA curriculum that – outside of a dim nod to focus groups and the CEOs who “got out to spend time with customers – listening skills weren’t even recognized as something worth cultivating.  Maybe we needed to invite some more cultural anthropologists into the classroom, or it could be that the whole value proposition of business school is to churn out people who can talk their way into that first investment banking job, but listening is getting short shrift as a skill needed for personal and professional success.

Listening starts with the recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and that you have something to learn from the person who is talking.  It requires you to be present, to be active, and to care what other people think.  And, perhaps most obvious, it requires you to keep your mouth shut unless you have something really valuable to say.

If you think that you might not be a good listener, try this: in your next conversation, or the next time you meet someone new, ask three questions in a row of that person (instead of, when they tell you something, saying, “It’s funny, the same thing happened to me the other day….”).  This is a little heavy handed, but doing it will both force you to practice and recognize if your impulse is to turn the conversation back to you.  People love to be heard – so give them that chance.

I had barely thought about this until two years ago when I started working at Acumen Fund, where listening is one of our core values.  We start with the premise that the only way to really break the back of poverty is by listening to poor people to understand who they are, their needs and preferences.  This serves two purposes: on a practical level, it forces the enterprises we invest in to create products and services poor people both want and need.  More fundamentally, it forces us, and the enterprises we support¸ to respect poor people, to afford them dignity, and to recognize them as fully capable human beings with real aspirations for their own lives.

You don’t have to be in the business of serving unmet needs of an underserved population to have this be important or possible.  Start small.  Listen to your co-workers, your boss, someone who works for you or the customer or student or parent or donor you’re meeting for the first.  Really hear what they have to say (and really listen for what they really mean but are not saying).

If you’re the kind of person who says something in any meeting you attend, practice going to meetings and saying nothing.  (And if you tend to keep your mouth shut, listen harder and practice saying something.)

We all play different roles in different settings – are you in a 1-on-1 meeting with your boss; presenting to a big group as an “expert” on a topic; or in a brainstorming session with peers?  It’s so easy to focus on the different things we’re supposed to say in each of these situations.  Don’t forget that you have to practice listening too.