How to instantly improve your listening skills

by Steli Efti
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Good founders learn how to be charismatic, confident, and persuasive. Great founders learn something more important.

Here’s the truth:

Most startup founders are really shitty listeners. Charisma can take you a long way, but if you don’t stop to learn more about your customers—if you don’t hear what they have to say—there’s little chance you’ll develop a product that connects with anyone.

Founders usually display bad listening skills by:

  1. Talking over prospects and customers
  2. Encouraging feedback, but only hearing what they want to hear

In both scenarios, it’s impossible to come away with the information you need. When you’re not listening well, you miss opportunities to gain real insights. I see it happen all the time.

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If you really want to be a better listener…

Shut up

Enthusiasm is great, especially during a demo or sales pitch, but not when it’s at the expense of others. Give people the opportunity to teach you about your product. Let them speak without interruption.

You can’t listen and have an inner dialogue at the same time.

When someone else is talking, don’t think about your next question. Don’t worry whether the conversation is going well. Don’t think about your dog or the emails you have to send. Just listen. Try to walk a mile in their shoes. Listen for clues that will help you explore the root of their problem. Why are they looking for a solution? What factors play a role in their decision? Are they stressed out? Are they confused? Have they been burned by other products in the past? Many times, if you just let them talk, you’ll get answers to these questions and more.

Rely on their voice to shape the conversation, not yours. Before a call or meeting, you might even commit to saying 20% less than you normally say, so that when you do talk, your words have more impact.

Slow down

The faster the conversation, the less you’ll absorb, especially if you’re already thinking about the next meeting or what’s left on your to-do list. It’s impossible to engage in a meaningful conversation when you’re in a rush. So relax. Give yourself plenty of time to understand exactly where the prospect or customer is coming from.

Ask questions

Founders don’t need to have all the answers, but they should know how to find them. Many times, prospects already know how to solve a problem—they just lack the clarity to see end results. If you listen carefully and ask the right questions, people often do a lot of the work for you. They generate ideas and insights, which you can then build on to solve their problem in a way they understand.

It’s important to recognize the difference between good and bad questions. “Would you like a more secure phone?” is a bad question—it leads the customer to a foregone conclusion. Who’s going to say no? Everybody wants a secure phone. If this was the only question you asked a group of people, you’d come away thinking they were all your target audience.

The better question is open-ended: “What don’t you like about your phone?”

If security comes up organically—something like, “Well, I just read about how insecure our phones are”—ask follow-up questions. Explore the deeper meaning of insecurity in this context.

Marketing and sales people can learn a great deal from developers when it comes to follow-up questions. When you tell a developer, “I care about security,” most of them will say, “Okay, so what does security mean to you?”

That’s because security is a broad term with many interpretations:

  • Are you concerned about the content your children view?
  • Are you scared that someone might steal your identity or access your bank account?
  • Are you worried about the government collecting data?

When you don’t ask follow-up questions, it’s an indication that you’re not listening closely. And besides, it’s rare that the first answer someone gives you contains all the necessary information you need to understand their problem.

Here’s some homework

Ask yourself: “Who’s the best listener I know?”

Then call that person or meet them for lunch. Figure out what makes them such a great listener. What questions do they ask? How do they respond when you’re frustrated or enthusiastic? What verbal cues do they use? When are they silent?

Study their listening skills and apply them to your own conversations.

Nobody’s a perfect listener

But there are definitely ways to be less shitty. Sometimes you just need to shut up, slow down, and ask the right questions.

Do what you can to live in the moment. Turn off your computer. Find a quiet, distraction-free space. And ignore your inner dialogue. Focus on their words, not yours. If you follow this advice, I guarantee you’ll end up learning a lot about your product and your customers.

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