Getting trained to listen

6th August 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

The one quality that entrepreneurs should necessarily possess is the ability to listen Entrepreneurship is the obverse side of the innovation coin.

6th August 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

The one quality that entrepreneurs should necessarily possess is the ability to listen

Entrepreneurship is the obverse side of the innovation coin. The flood of responses to my columns on entrepreneurial ego suggests both reader interest and diversity of views. Entrepreneurs create an institution, which should be sustainably beneficial to consumers and stakeholders. The founder’s ego is a potential ‘toxin’ for such an enterprise. How can we think about ego?

An entrepreneur practises polar skills simultaneously: single-minded but also open to others’ views; imaginative but also realistic; bold but must also conserve cash; decides on gut/instinct but also on analytics. A successful entrepreneur has to be some sort of a genius among Homo sapiens. However a different perspective emerges by not viewing these skills as opposite, but as complementary to each other. It is similar to one being a loving and disciplining parent, or a loyal and questioning employee.

We are all born with some characteristics or deficiencies that morph as we grow up. To lead a normal life, our body, physiology and psychology adapt to these characteristics. ‘Psychological toxins’ are one such characteristic, which influences behaviour.

It is possible, indeed desirable, for entrepreneurs to be sensitive and thick-skinned, to be action-oriented and thoughtful, and to be full of self-confidence and yet be humble. “Ego manifests as obduracy – quite different from self-confidence, which embraces a rational flexibility,” says K K Narayanan, co-founder of Metahelix, Bengaluru.

To be both confident as well as humble, a leader has to listen. One can get training in how to persuade, how to get noticed and so on. But have you ever come across a course on how to listen? Most likely not. Listening is a skill; it cannot be taught.

Increasingly, meetings embed positive distractions, which actually discourage listening. K Vaitheeswaran, founder of, recalls: “I faced this challenge at every Monday review meeting… and I ruled that nobody could bring his or her own laptop or phone to the meeting… Companies can treble productivity by banning personal devices while attending meetings.”

I researched ‘listening’ for my book, What the CEO Really Wants from You (HarperCollins, 2012). I found that people with hearing disability can teach us how to improve listening through five lessons (“Lessons of Silence”, Bruno Kahne, Strategy & Business, May 22, 2008).

Look people in the eye: Many of us take notes as we listen to people so that we can remember things. Some of us are not fully engaged with the speaker. On the other hand, people with hearing disability look at the speaker in the eye and make sure they are fully present in the interaction. They absorb more and retain more.

Don’t interrupt: In many entrepreneurial situations, there are simultaneous and multiple conversations. That never happens with people who have hearing disability. They follow a strict protocol of one person speaking at a time. Consensus and agreement are reached faster than out of a heated and overlapping conversation. In the long term, slower is faster.

Convey in a simple way what you mean: People with hearing disability are direct and communicate what they think and feel. They tend not to hide behind flowery words. They are economical in the way they communicate. For the same reason, they listen well too.

Ask to repeat if you do not understand: Sign language is much more evolved than the spoken word. New signs evolve all the time. Signs used by people from one region may be different from those used by people from another region. Therefore people with hearing disability do not hesitate to ask for a clarification if they have not understood something.

Be focused: People with hearing disability do not multitask; they concentrate on the interaction at hand. They cut themselves off from distractions. With the advent of personal digital assistants and iPhones, people who can hear do the opposite.

These are practical ways for entrepreneurs to listen better, and may be, retain humility. They cannot lose by practising these, they just might benefit.