225: Listening Skills for Startup Founders
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In this episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten sit down for a candid conversation about listening. Like it or not, everyone (yes, even you) has a problem listening—especially company founders. Founders are notorious for having some of the worst listening skills out there. An inability to listen amongst company leaders is a big reason so many startups fail. Fortunately, listening can (like so many other skills) be learned Listen to Steli and Hiten to find out how…
Time Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:31 – Founders have a problem with listening
- 01:16 – A lot of curriculum in the world teaches speaking but not listening
- 01:45 – Customer intimacy and development is rooted in listening
- 02:18 – Founders apply the right techniques in getting feedback but don’t listen to it well enough to gain the insight they need
- 02:36 – Steli was in a conversation with a founder who created a smart phone
- 03:11 – They do not know who their customer is
- 04:02 – They convinced themselves that everybody loves their product
- 04:14 – Founders are so busy talking out loud or in their head they don’t create enough silence to listen
- 05:06 – Steli says there is a difference between YOUR solution and THEIR problem
- 05:34 – In the case of the smart phone, there are not a lot of obvious consumer problems right now
- 06:10 – But if you can be quiet enough to listen, you’ll see people are looking for fully encrypted phones
- 06:26 – Ask users what challenges they have regarding your products, services, or industry
- 06:44 – When asking for feedback, are you trying to LEARN or are you trying to PROVE YOURSELF RIGHT?—intention determines whether or not we are listening
- 07:16 – Your intention should be to learn whatever people have to teach you
- 07:30 – You have to understand there are different types of questions
- 08:03 – Are you asking leading questions?
- 08:31 – The better option is to ask open-ended questions
- 10:16 – Non-developers can learn a great deal from developers because they will ask you more questions about what you have told them
- 10:58 – When you do not have a follow-up question, that is an indication you are not listening enough
- 11:58 – You cannot have an inner dialogue if you are actually listening to someone
- 12:31 – Being a great listener is about being unselfish in the moment
- 13:33 – Ask yourself, who is the best listener you know
- 14:28 – Spend more time with them and observe what they are doing and the questions they are asking
- 15:13 – Hiten had to learn to listen by learning how to shut up in his head
- 16:22 – Because Hiten tends to be very reactive, he had to train himself to think about what the other person is saying and repeat it in his head
- 16:46 – When the person stops talking, that is when you can react
- 17:10 – Hiten looks at the person talking to help him not get distracted
- 17:42 – Hiten also listens for inflection points
- 18:03 – Use the meditation concept “be in the moment”
- 17:42 – Hiten also listens for inflection points
- 20:09 – Steli learned he has to give advice differently by listening
- 20:50 – Whereas he used to get frustrated when someone was not listening, Steli now sees it as a personal challenge to communicate more effectively.
- 21:35 – Invest in learning how to listen well
3 Key Points:
- Being a great listener starts with intention. You should want to learn more from the person you are talking to.
- Being a great listener is about being unselfish in the moment.
- When talking to someone, shut up verbally and in your head. This is where they get to express their opinions, feelings, and insights—things you need to know if you want to be a successful, effective leader.
Hey, everyone. This is Steli Efti.
And this is Hiten Shah, and today on The Startup Chat we’re going to talk about listening skills. This applies to founders, as well as team members inside companies. I think founders have a problem with listening, for the most part, so this is why I was really excited when you mentioned this topic, Steli.
Yeah, I think this is a really cool one. I think if you think about it, just in general, let’s go back to the basics. Even growing up, think about all the amount of time and energy that we are investing in teaching children, teaching ourselves to speak, to communicate, and even once we’re grown up and we’re able to communicate fluently, how many books, how much energy’s put into being charismatic, and having a good sales pitch, and presenting well, and tonality, and body language. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of curriculum in the world around speaking. Now think about how much time do we spend teaching listening. It’s almost none, if not zero, like literally zero time. A person can be 30 years old and never spend an hour trying to understand or trying to improve their listening skills. I think it’s a really under developed area, and it’s an incredibly powerful and crucial area. I think a huge part of what we’re talking about, especially when we talk about customer intimacy, and customer development, gaining insights in understanding your customers, and serving them, and understanding the problem. All that, a big part of everything we talk about is listening really carefully, and really openly, and curiously, and I think that that’s the biggest thing founders are tripping over, or startup people in general, are tripping over is that they apply the right techniques, they do surveys, they go and talk to customers, they visit them, they spend time talking to people, but they’re never really listening well enough to gain the insights they need, so they go … I had a conversation the other day. Sorry, I’m ranting on this, but I had a back and forth e-mail conversation with a founder who was basically telling me they basically developed a smartphone, right, and it’s like a smartphone that is everything to everyone, as far as I can tell. It’s like this cool thing, but it seemed very unfocused. I didn’t know who was the target audience for this, and why should anybody care. It didn’t seem to be that much better in any one area than what’s already out there on the market, and this team was very inexperienced. I’m like, “How did you come up with building a smartphone and why, like who’s your customer, and all that?” And they were trying to convince me that they don’t know who their customer is, and that’s their problem, and that they have done extensive customer research, and have found that everybody loves this thing equally.
Yes, that’s exactly my reaction. Huh. I was trying to get more data on this. I was like, “Really? This is very unusual. Tell me exactly what kind of surveys have you done, what kind of conversations have you had, and what kind of feedback people give you.” And basically the conclusion that I got from it, and I might be wrong, but the impression I’ve got is that this team went to people and talked to them very passionately about their new smartphone, and then basically did not listen carefully enough for the clues in the feedback that they were getting. They basically convinced themselves that everybody loves this thing. I find this not to be an unusual case. Founders not gaining the insights and the data they need, because they’re so busy talking either out loud or in their head, and not enough time listening. So, I don’t know. I think this is a big one, and this is why you’re excited about this. Okay, if this is the problem, how do founders, how do people get better at listening? How did you get good at this?
I think when you think about listening a lot of it has to do with talking, ’cause your example, in your example, it’s like they’re saying things, and the things they’re saying are leading the witness. If the witness is the other party they’re talking to, in the language I’m using. So, they’re basically showing the passion for their product. They’re describing their product. They’re not trying to understand where the other person is coming from, and I think that’s the big difference in that case. What I’m reminded of is a very core lean startup principle, which is this idea that there’s a difference between your solution and their problem. What these folks were doing is just talking about their solution it sounds like, not really pushing on understanding the problem.
Yeah, go ahead.
No, go ahead, go ahead.
So, I think it’s simple. In their case, they’re probably so excited about the solution, they never bothered to understand whether people actually have the problems or problem that their product solves. If they dug in, they’ll probably realize that there’s not very many problems with a phone that’s worth solving today, like in terms of the phone itself. And I mean that. I mean there’s some obscure use cases, such as there are some people out there that really want a super encrypted phone, right?
But that’s not everybody. I just popped that in my head, right, and said, “Okay, great. What’s a problem with phones that I would go dig into if I had to build a phone?” I’d go have a hypothesis that people … There are certain groups of people, which I would want to identify, who need an encrypted phone, a fully encrypted phone that essentially never leaked any data. That’s interesting, right, that’s a potential problem. Then I’d go talk to people, different groups that I think of, not tell them, “Oh, I have this idea. I want to build a secure phone.” Instead, I’d sit there and ask them, “You have a phone today. What are your challenges with that phone? Like what are your challenges with communicating using it?” And things like that instead of ever telling them that my idea was about very super secure encrypted phone.
Yeah, I think, well, number one, I think that it starts off with your intention. You need to just check yourself before you wreck yourself, and you need to realize, “I’m going to go out there to learn.” Versus “I’m going to go out there to prove that I’m right.”
Because if you are trying to prove yourself right, you’re going to prove yourself right. You’re going to find proof. If you want to convince yourself that other people are telling you you’re right, you’re going to take almost anything they’re telling you as confirmation that you’re right. Then the problem with that is that you’re not learning anything, right. Your intention needs to be, “I’m going to out there and learn whatever people have to teach me. Whatever the market is ready to teach me.” And not, “I’m going to go and learn that I’m right.” That’s number one. Number two, I think, is the understanding that there’s different types of questions, right. You mentioned it very early on with leading questions. I think a lot of people don’t understand … A lot of people have not really spent a little bit of time learning what are the different types of questions we can ask, and what are good versus bad questions, and what are questions that are going to serve our purpose here of learning and gaining insights, versus just getting us to an end goal that we’ve already decided on. Is it a leading questions. Am I saying things like … Am I asking them in the way that is suggesting the answer, right? “Oh, would you also like to have a more secure phone?” That’s not a useful question, right. Who’s going to say no to that? That is not how you’re going to find out if people care about security. Oh, we found out that 98% of all the people out there care about security. No you haven’t, right. You put those words in their mouth. If you asked them a better question, which is an open-ended question, “Hey, today, do you have any challenges with your phone? Is there anything that you wish was there that isn’t? Is anything there that is really painful every day that’s really bothering you about your phone?” You would have found that none of the people that told you “Yes, they care about security” would have brought up security as a thing that really bothers them, or worries them, or they care a great deal about, but you’ve put words in their mouth and they agree, because it sounded good. Is it an open or closed question? Is it a yes or no, or a question that allows them to really answer based on whatever comes up in their mind organically and honestly? The other thing is how quickly, I always find that people are too quick to interpret, or to fill in the blanks, right. So, I’m asking you a question, so let’s say I say, “Hey, what’s a challenge you have with your phone? What’s something you don’t like about it?” Let’s even assume that you say something along the lines of like, “Yeah, sometimes I’m worried with all the news and all the stuff is like, ‘How secure is it really?'” Let’s say that that was really something that you brought up organically. Most founders at that point will just take and run with this answer, assuming they completely understand what the person cares about. “Oh, this person really cares about security because …” Now people will put in words in the mouth of the other person. You are interpreting things. You are adding information that the person didn’t explicitly, verbally really gave to you. Then went, “Well, because this person is watching a lot of news …” Like people will add information that they didn’t really receive from the person that they were asking, or they will interpret what security even means, right. I think this is one thing where non-developers, especially like marketing and sales people, can learn a great deal from developers, ’cause when you tell a developer, usually a good one, “Hey, I really care about security.” They go, “What does that mean to you?” Right, because security could mean a lot of different things. It’s too big of a word. It’s too big of a chunk of information to really discern what that really practically means in terms of what features would you care about, what type of security would we have to have? Is this security about like your children and what kind of information they’re viewing on your phone? Is this security in terms of like if people can steal your identity or can access your bank account? Or is this security in terms of like the government getting data from your phone and knowing where you are at any given time, or something else, right? It could mean a million different things to a million different people. Oftentimes when you don’t have a lot of follow-up questions to the type of answers people give you, that’s an indication that not really listening carefully enough, because it’s very rare that the first answer somebody gives you contains all the information necessary to get to true understanding of what the person meant, right. Most of the time, people will give you a little bit of information, and you have to kind of follow-up once, twice, sometimes multiple times until they’ve given you all the pieces of the puzzle, and you really know what they truly meant by their first statement. Does that make sense?
Totally makes sense. Yeah.
I think that those are some of the things that are important. Now, of course, you can learn all about asking good questions, and be a bit more self aware of what kind of questions you ask, and you can have all the best intentions in the world, but, I don’t know. There’s no substitute for caring about for … I think you have to … You cannot have an inner dialogue and at the same time listen to somebody, right. While they’re speaking, you should not be busy in your mind thinking thoughts or having an internal dialogue, saying, “Oh, what’s my next question? What should I ask them?” Or, “Oh, I need to wrap this real quick up.” Or, “Oh, this is not going well. This person doesn’t like security, and we’ve built a secure phone, so maybe I’m wasting my time here.” The moment you’re talking to yourself, or you have thoughts, or whatever you want to call it, you cannot pay attention to the other person. You cannot truly listen. You cannot truly care, so to a certain degree, being a great listener is about being totally unselfish in the moment, and actually being like, if you want to call it so, in a meditative state where your mind should be somewhat blank other than trying to really pay attention, and trying to put yourself in the shoes of the other person, trying to have a really high level of empathy where you truly understand what does this person need? What do they mean? Why are they saying what they are saying? What can I learn from them? What is the core of … What’s the root of their problems or their challenges, or the things they care about? All right, I’m going to throw my tip early here in the episode, and then I want to learn a little bit more about kind of your strategies around this, but one thing … I think everybody that’s listening to this, some people might be a little challenged. They’re like, “Oh shit. How do I get better at listening, even if I wanted to?” Just ask yourself, who’s the best listener you know. Most of us know somebody professionally or personally who’s just an amazing person to talk to, and part of why it’s amazing to talk to them is because they’re listening really well. They’re paying attention, they care, and it’s such a powerful thing because it’s so rare. Most of the time when we talk to people, we can feel that they’re not listening. They’re just waiting for their turn to talk, all right. There’s just two humans waiting while the other person is talking, “When can I? Oh, now it’s my time to talk.” And they talk, and the other person is now-
Hey, hey, hey. Can I talk now?
Just kidding. Just kidding.
No, but it’s exactly that, right.
But we all also know somebody that’s just great at listening, so it feels really great to talk to them, because they pay attention, and they care, and we feel understood. Just spend more time with them, or next time you talk to them, try to figure out what kind of questions do they ask? What do they do that makes them great listeners? Try to learn from another person that’s really good at it. All right. Now I’ve talked enough. Now I’m curious to listen to you. How the … Like you are amazing. You’re a really great listener. How did you improve on that skill? How did you develop that skill?
Oh, man. I’m the type of person that really falls victim to this, and I call it victim because I don’t want to be a victim of it anymore, where I’ll say something and my timing is off, and people don’t listen. When I say things, I actually want people to hear it, and react to it, and have an opinion, and it help them in most conversations that I have. What I learned to do what just shut the fuck up. I don’t just mean verbally. I mean in my head. That’s, I think, the important thing that I learned, which is I need to stop speaking in my head while the other person’s speaking. Instead, I should be listening. Listening doesn’t mean you’re nodding your head yeah, but you’re thinking about, best case, what they’re saying and how to respond, or worst case some other random thing in your life, right. Instead, what I do now is when someone’s speaking, whether it’s on the phone or in person, there’s two tactics for me. On the phone, I’m deeply thinking about what they’re saying. What I mean by that is when they start saying things, I’m thinking through, “Oh.” Instead of thinking through how do I respond to this, I really think through, “Oh, what are they … Why are they saying this? What’s going on when they say this? What’s going on in their heads? Why would they say something like this? What’s the perception that they have? How does this relate to the thing they just told me a few minutes ago?” So all these things, to me, my brain works pretty rapidly. Some people process differently than that, and they just need to sit with ideas. I tend to be very reactive, so this was my personal problem, where I would get reactive and instead think about the next thing, so I just instead try to think about what they said repeated in my head as they’re speaking, and sort of that repetition helps me synthesize it and slow down. So, I’m very speedy, so I tend to slow down by just repeating what they said in my head, just so that I can understand it and listen instead of so I can react to it. ‘Cause when they’re done, I can react to it. I have as much time as I need. I don’t need to be reacting to it as they’re speaking. I know this is what some of the smartest people I know, even some of the folks who are junior on our teams and they’re like really learning fast, they just tend to run over you in their heads, and you can almost see it happen to them, because you can watch their eye movements. For me, I’m actually looking at the person a lot when they’re speaking. That helps me not get distracted, and then when I’m speaking, I might not look them as directly, ’cause then that allows me to think without being so focused on what they just said. That’s been my approach. Usually I used to do it the opposite, ’cause when they were speaking I’d be looking elsewhere, which is just something I did, and now I realize that I would look at them, and look at their expressions, and really understand their emotion. Then on the phone, I’m actually not just listening for their words, I’m listening for their inflection points, and where they get passionate and where they don’t. I am looking for opportunities where I can insert my opinion, but I’m not so excited about responding anymore, which I used to be. That relaxation, that being relaxed about it, has been so useful to me to just listen. A lot of it has to do with these meditation concepts, like be in the moment, and so you can’t be in the moment if you’re constantly thinking about the next moment. The next moment is when you’re thinking about responding. Instead, I want to hear you, so I just try to do my best to hear you, and listen to what you’re saying, and empathize with what you’re saying, hear the emotion around it. That’s really been helpful to me more than anything else. But I will give a caveat. People are different. I’m just quick to react, and can react really quickly on anything that someone brings to me. Even if something really, really crazy happened in front of me, I’m not one to sit there for too long and say, “Oh, what just happened?” Instead, I’m there to act and do something about it, right, and so, that response system is a detriment to listening. These are the kind of tactics that I’ve used, and a lot of this I learned from advising founders, and realizing that they didn’t listen to me, and they weren’t hearing me, and they weren’t understanding. I was going to fast. So now, I would say that 10 or 20% of what I actually would have said before, ends up being said now, and is more impactful, that 10, 20%. So I’m looking for that 10, 20% out of 100% of what I could say, and that’s been really helpful to me. Also, keeping the thread of a conversation is really important, not jumping around, with most people. There are some people where jumping around is like just the way they are, and I enjoy doing that, but there’s more people who need more and it’s helpful to stay more on message and focused.
Yeah, I love that. I remember this very vividly where in the very early days, I think we were just like 20 episodes in, and also 20 episodes deep in our relationship in terms of how well we knew each other, and I remember complaining about some type of person that I’m giving advice in e-mail, and they’re not taking it, or something along those lines. I don’t remember the details. I remember you telling me, “Yeah, that’s how I thought as well, and then I realized it sucks to think this way. I want to give advice they take, so if a big chunk of people don’t take the advice I give them, then it means I have to learn to give advice differently.” That was the moment I fell in love with you, but that was also the moment that I thought, “Aw, fuck me. He’s so right.” But, you know, it’s always the inconvenient thing when you have to take full responsibility of all results if life; you don’t blame others for it.
But ever since then, even more so than before, I’ve seen even challenging exchanges with people that are not necessarily, and this includes the team with the new smartphone to some degree, and I’m not perfect at this, I fall back in old behavior at times, but more often than not, when I have an exchange, I used to get frustrated really quickly and just lose patience, and be like, “All right. I don’t have time for this. This person is not paying attention or not learning what I’m trying to convey, so let’s just move on. I have other things to do.” Now, I’m just seeing it as a, more often than not, I’m looking it as a challenge to improve my communication. I’m like, “All right. How can I be more flexible in my communication so the person can hear me?” Or, “Am I not really listening well enough to hear them in a way where I can give helpful advice, or be useful to them?” That’s been super inspiring to see how you handle this, and it definitely effected me. All right, man. Listening skills, right. This is something I think that’s a lifelong journey and lifelong task. I don’t think anybody’s ever a perfect listener, but I think it’s so worth it to keep investing in this and try to get better, and better, and better at it. All right. I think that’s it from us for this episode.
Yeah. See ya’. Good luck listening.
Good luck listening.