February 10, 2016

Why Active Listening is Just as Important as Your Pitch

I spent a lot of time over the holidays catching up with my family and friends. It seems forever ago, but as I reflect on how enjoyable it was (and it was enjoyable) I was struck by how few people in the world would be considered “good” listeners.

This led me to reflect on how many founders I meet who are so busy being in “pitch mode” when speaking with investors, customers, or potential employees, that they forget to listen actively.

What are common habits of bad listeners?  

  • Talking about themselves - excessively. Most people are too busy talking about themselves that they're incapable of taking a genuine interest in someone else. This leads to elongated, agonizing monologues that removes the opportunity for any genuine exchange of ideas.
  • Relating what you say back to their life. Also known as “one-uppers,” these people immediately interrupt what you’re saying to somehow relate it back to themselves, implying that they have a better or more interesting experience with the subject at hand. While their experiences may indeed be more interesting, they're constantly thinking about ways they could chime in with a personal anecdote rather than actually processing what you're saying.
  • Changing the subject. If someone changes the subject while you’re talking, they either have no idea what you’re talking about or simply have no interest in what you’re saying. In both scenarios, the person isn't listening actively. This also makes the person seem careless and unable to connect emotionally or cognitively with another human being.
  • Saying “yeah” or “uh-huh” to hurry you along. A nod or "yeah" can be a helpful social cue to say they're listening but, when over used, it's a clear sign that the person isn't absorbing any of the information you're sharing. Along with the other bad listening habits, rushing someone along when they’re speaking hinders their willingness to listen to you when you speak. Bad listeners wait impatiently for their turn to speak - and still expect undivided attention.

The art of active listening

It isn’t easy to be a good listener. Research says we talk at 130 words per minute (wpm), listen at 400 wpm, and think at 1000 wpm. So even if there is genuine interest in what one is saying, it’s extremely easy for the mind to wander.

Active listening takes effort, patience, and understanding. In this Wall Street Journal article, Graham D. Bodie, a communications professor at Louisiana State University, states that “active listening starts with the real desire to help another person think through their feelings. Don’t try to fix the problem right out of the gate and don’t rush things.”  

It all starts with being genuinely curious about what the other person has to say and asking open-ended questions. Having good body language, maintaining eye contact, and giving well-timed verbal cues also helps signify that you're engaged in a conversation and gives the speaker encouragement to continue confidently.

What's this got to do with founders?

In so many pitches I receive, the meeting starts with a conversation, but then out come the slides and the founder moves into “pitch mode.” The listening and exchange of ideas stops. No matter how well honed a pitch it is, this represents a lost opportunity, as I believe how founders listen and take in feedback is a meaningful indicator of whether or not their company will succeed. Point five, "develop curiosity, an open mind, and a desire for continuous growth," from this Fast Company article is right on. People and founders who are naturally curious see conversations as learning opportunities are going to be more successful.  

Too many founders aren't open to criticism and potential change, which could help them shape and sharpen their idea. Many resist open-ended questions and conversations, as they feel they won’t like the answers or that they can’t control the conversation. (Side note: I also see the reverse, where founders take everything a potential investor says as gospel and agree with everything. This is even worse.)

Active listening - and the genuine conversation it begets - isn't only a sign of respect, but a sign of intellect. Iit shows you're a learning machine with an ability to accept and consider input and be open-minded, all of which demonstrates strength, not weakness or vulnerability. Further, particularly for early stage companies in a fund-raising setting, a genuine conversation builds relationships and deepens a connection, which is ultimately the basis upon which many investment decisions are made. The converse also applies. A potential investor who isn't a good listener will be a terrible board member and advisor. They'll never take the time to truly understand the issues you're facing. Even if they do, they'll be too busy promoting their world view for their advice to be meaningful.

Outside of the investor setting, good listening skills are even more important when recruiting or speaking with potential customers. If you take an active interest in a potential employee and listen carefully, you'll come away with a much better sense for how they think, what's important to them, and whether they'll culturally fit your company.

With customers, if you immediately go into pitch mode, you lose a valuable opportunity to let them articulate their issues, priorities, and organizational processes (including how they buy). As a result, you'll miss valuable opportunities to shape and modify your approach to best fit their needs.  

Listening actively will help all of us build our relationships, our businesses, and our knowledge. (It can also make for a more enjoyable holiday break!) Take a step back and listen more often. It'll benefit you greatly - not only as the founder of a company, but as a person, too.  


Chip Hazard is a General Partner with Flybridge Capital Partners. Follow him on Twitter: @chazard.

Image via Shutterstock.