Listen - Do You Want To Know a Secret?


Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?
Let me whisper in your ear.
Say the words you long to hear.
I can help you sell.

My apologies to John and Paul, but I am sure they will get over it.

The secret to effective Networking, Selling and Negotiating can be summarized in a single word. Listen.

Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood
Steven R. Covey

Sometimes there is a good reason clichés become clichés – they are worth repeating. Covey’s quote is one such truism. You will not maximize your effectiveness as a leader, negotiator or salesperson if you do not fully understand the frame of reference, biases and potential misinformation rattling around in the head of the other party with whom you are communicating.

The most direct way to determine what the other party is thinking is to listen. Simple. Easy. Obvious. Yet many entrepreneurs, with their bias toward action and strong willed, aggressive personalities, consistently do a poor job of listening.

Forget Give And Take

In Western culture, conversations are based upon both parties contributing to the dialog. Conversations are deemed to be good when each party has an equal amount of air time to express their thoughts. In amped, entrepreneurial discussions, both parties are often trying to out talk each other. This disastrous form of communication is often a function of two busy people trying to maximize the time required to persuade the other party.

Do not get me wrong. I am a big fan of persuading people. As discussed in “Your Personal Pitch”, you have to persuade a lot of otherwise bright Stakeholders to support your adVenture to help ensure its success. Cherish and cultivate this motivation. However, in certain circumstances, you can be more persuasive and ultimately save yourself time if you force yourself to follow the listening tactics outlined below.

The US legal system has long understood that the best decisions are made when the opposing parties are apprised of all the salient facts of a particular case. Thus, the discovery phase of legal proceedings has been institutionalized to ensure that the defense and the prosecution share key facts with each other. The listening tactics outlined below are akin to such a discovery process. Your goal is to ‘discover’ the true intent and basis of the other party’s positions, opinions and frame of reference before you share your thoughts.

Warning: deploying these tactics is not easy. Like most worthwhile skills, these tactics require patience and practice in order for you to master them.

Step 1: Focus

When was the last time someone really gave you their undivided attention? Can you even remember the last such conversation? Such discussions are so rare that it may be hard pressed to recall the last highly focused discussion in which you were involved.

How can you show the other party that you are totally focused on what they are saying? Consider how adults communicate with small children. When you remove the ingratiating and condescending elements from such communications, you are left with a solid foundation upon which to build a quality listening environment.

Even though it is a rarely utilized skill, listening is not rocket science. Simply grant moderate eye contact and be generous with non-verbal clues. Also, control the environment. Do not interrupt the discussion to take phone calls, do not allow people to tramp into your office, etc.

Consider conducting such focused discussions outside of your office to help minimize potential distractions. In addition, create an environment that mitigates the traditional superior / subordinate paradigm. For instance, an offsite meeting will allow you to sit across from the other party as a peer and not in the more traditional desk / office chair scenario.

Step2: Memorex

Rewind and repeat. After you have given the other party your focused attention, ensure that they understand that you understand. However, as you summarize, be careful to not interpret the other party’s message and do not assign value judgments to it (implicitly or otherwise). Your goal at this stage is simple – you want to be sure that you properly understand the content and intent of the other party’s words.

Step3: Give Me More, Give Me More

This is the step that only comes naturally to therapists and clergymen – certainly not to entrepreneurs. After you have confirmed that you properly understand the other party’s message, invite them to continue. Let them know that you are eager to hear more.

Traditional conversations do not work in this fashion. In most dialogues, one party states their opinion and then waits for the other party to comment, either in affirmation or a rebuttal. Your goal is to break this pattern and encourage the other party to share all of their thoughts, before you respond.

When they pause to think of more to say, remain silent. Fight the urge to jump in during their pauses and turn the discussion into the conventional Ping-Pong conversational pattern of: I talk, now you talk. I talk, now you talk… Short-circuiting this social moré is difficult, especially if you do not agree with the sentiments expressed by the other party. However, fight the urge to refute their statements and encourage them to continue.

Step4: Let the Well Run Dry

In the American South, it is called going on a jag, defined as “a period of over indulgence or a spree”. Jags come in all forms: crying jags, drinking jags, sleeping jags, screaming jag, etc. Your goal in this fourth step of the discovery process is to encourage the other party to go on a talking jag.

Overindulge the other party. Continue to fight the urge to counter what you are hearing. Before you react and interject your thoughts, it is key that you first fully understand the other party’s position in order to avoid any false assumptions. If the conversation addresses a contentious subject, the other party may initially hold back commenting on the most inflammatory issues. Your goal at this stage is to ensure that the other party verbally expresses every issue which they deem relevant.

Let the other party talk until it is clear that they have nothing meaningful left to say. One way to restrain yourself is to remember that at this stage the other party’s ideas are more important than your own. However, silence is not a complicit agreement. If you are concerned that your silence might be misconstrued, consider clarifying your silence with brief comments, such as, “This is very valuable information and it is helpful for me to fully understand your position.”

Step 5: Clarify Before You Crucify

OK, the well has run dry and the discovery process is almost over. The last step is to summarize and interpret what the other party has communicated to you. One way to do preface this is to say, “Here’s what I hear you saying… is this correct?”

You are now ready to share your thoughts in a meaningful and highly impactful manner. In addition, your insight and clarity into the other party’s thoughts will allow you to tailor your comments such that you will have a higher probability of reaching a mutually satisfying resolution. Hopefully, the discovery process has opened up one or more avenues of compromise that may not have been evident to you at the outset of the discussion. Even if you experienced no epiphanies during the discovery process, at least you will be assured that the decision you make or the negotiating approach that you employ is grounded in a firm understanding of the other party’s positions.

Bear in mind that these tactics are not appropriate for every discussion. Some conversations are best served with a quick, give and take dialog. However, discussions which might be contentious or situations in which you do not have a firm understanding of the other party’s position represent just two opportunities to utilize these listening tactics. In the right circumstances, these listening tactics will facilitate more efficient discussions with potentially more effective outcomes.

In addition to this simple five stage process, you can augment your listening capabilities by deploying the following techniques:

Avoid Talking Too Much

Duh. This truism seems almost too obvious too mention. Almost. No matter how talented you may think you are at multitasking, you cannot listen while you are talking. In fact, you cannot listen effectively even when your mouth is shut if your brain is busy crafting what you are going to say next. We have all struggled, at one time or another, to keep top-of-mind a retort, while we waited for the other party to take a breath. This approach ensures that we assuage our egos, but often at the expense of effectively processing the other party’s comments.

By making the concerted decision to not talk, you can give the other party the focus and attention that will result in optimum results. Remember, you have two ears and one mouth. If you can force yourself to talk half as much as you listen, your words will be more impactful and more thoughtful because they will be based upon a solid understanding of the other party’s frame of reference.

Use Your Words to Ask Questions

When you do speak, ask, do not tell. In other words, use your words to pose questions that will solicit additional information from the other party, rather than sharing your opinion.

Asking questions is an effective use of your words. However, avoid why questions. Questions that involve why often put the other party on the defensive. For instance, instead of saying, “Why do you believe that is true?” you can pose the same question in a less confrontational manner by asking something to the effect of, “I am curious as to what led you to that conclusion?” or “Help me understand what caused you to assume…”

Do Not Fear the Sounds of Silence

Silence is your friend when you are in listening mode. Let silences go unfilled until the other party has collected their thoughts. Silence also gives you a chance to process what the other party has said without the burden of you trying to simultaneously think of a reply to fill the silence. Rather than blurting out something to ease your discomfort, fill silences with smiles, head nods or nonverbal forms of encouragement.

One Phone Line Is Enough

In today’s world of continuous multitasking, it is not uncommon for someone to answer email, text chat and even take another call while they are speaking to you. In some circumstances, performing alternative tasks while you are on a call is appropriate. However, draw the line of multitasking at the use of call-waiting, especially in a professional environment.

My most important phone call is the one I am currently on, no matter with whom I am speaking. At one of my adVentures, we finally generated enough revenue to justify junking our previously owned, circa 1980 phone system that randomly terminated calls without notice while the parties were in mid-sentence.

When the new phones were distributed, I was given an Executive phone. I asked, “Other than costing three times the amount of the standard phone, what is the difference?” I was told that the Executive phone had two lines, which allowed the user to put a caller on hold and pick up another line if they received a more important incoming call. This was all I had to hear. I knew that I did not want the Executive phone, even though it looked really cool and had a lot more buttons than the standard version.

Never put someone on hold to take another call. Think of how you feel when you are in the midst of a conversation and the other party puts you on ‘hold’ to access call-waiting. Being interrupted in such a manner is rude, but it is downright insulting if the other party rejoins the call, only to tell you, “I have to take this other call!” Even during a casual conversation with a friend, this is a frustrating experience, as the underlying message is clear: ‘I have something more important to do than talk to you’. In a professional setting, such behavior is inexcusable and never appropriate.


The secret to networking, selling and negotiating is simple. All you have to do is listen and create an environment in which the other party is comfortable sharing all of their relevant thoughts with you before you verbalize your thoughts, opinions or positions. In all of your pivotal conversations, before you open your mouth, remember that: a truly wise person uses few words.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions, which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is currently a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage web-based businesses, and is a Co-Founder of RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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