If you want to change the world, become a better listener



“If a person speaks and no one listens, is that really communication?” - William Ury

When was the last time that you received someone’s undivided attention? 

Truly generous listening can feel like a rarity these days, so much so that when you’re on the receiving end, you notice it. You can feel when another person is giving you their full consideration without interrupting, jumping in with advice, or crafting a counter-argument. It feels very different from the usual conversations you may have in an average day. And it can be incredibly powerful.

One of my passions is communication, so I study and learn from people who are particularly good at it. One of these amazing communicators is William Ury, cofounder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and coauthor of Getting to Yes. 

Ury is a legend in the world of high-stakes negotiation: the kind of person presidents and moguls turn to during difficult disputes and tense political battles. But what makes him so successful in these situations is not his ability to persuade people to do one thing or another, but his knack for listening. In this TEDx talk, he reveals that, “successful negotiators...listen far more than they talk.”

How powerful is this ability to listen? Here’s an example. When a Brazilian entrepreneur was battling his business partner over control of the country’s largest retailer, he gave Ury a list of demands. Because he was listening deeply, however, Ury knew to probe further. “Help me understand here. What do you really want?” he asked.

The entrepreneur paused and said, “Freedom. I want my freedom.” Articulating that one powerful idea transformed the course of the entire negotiation, resulting in a settlement that satisfied both partners.

Ury used the same deep listening skills during a tense moment in Venezuelan politics, acting as a third party between President Hugo Chavez’s government and his political opponents.

“I just listened. I gave him my full attention,” Ury remembers. “President Chavez was famous for making 8-hour speeches, but after 30 minutes of me just nodding and listening, I saw his shoulders sag and he said to me in a weary voice, ‘So Ury, what should I do?’” 

“That’s the sound of a human mind opening to listen,” Ury says. “His mood had completely shifted. Because I listened to him, he was more ready to listen to me.”

I was so inspired by Ury’s talk that I wanted to share four key insights with you here. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me!

Insight #1: Why we all need to listen

Here are three reasons we all need to listen more:

  1. First, listening helps us understand one another. “How can you possibly change someone else’s mind if you don’t know where their mind is?” Ury asks.

  2. Second, it helps us connect and build rapport. “It shows we care. Everybody wants to be heard,” he says.

  3. Finally, it helps us be heard, too. “[Listening] makes it more likely that the other person is going to listen to us,” Ury notes.

Insight #2: What genuine listening really looks like

According to Ury, there’s ordinary listening and then there’s genuine listening. Here’s the difference:

In ordinary listening, you are often…

  • Listening only enough to decide whether you agree or disagree

  • Crafting your counter-argument

  • Planning what you’ll say next

  • Focusing on yourself

In genuine listening, you are…

  • Focusing on the other person

  • Looking at things from their perspective

  • “Tuning into their wavelength,” as Ury calls it

  • Listening to what’s not being said as well as what’s being said

  • Listening for the underlying feelings, emotions

  • Listening to the human behind the words

Insight #3: How to transform the way you listen

“We take listening for granted as something easy and natural,” Ury says. “But real listening, genuine listening, is something that needs to be learned and practiced every day.”

If you’re up to the challenge, Ury suggests learning to listen to yourself first. Remembering his interactions with President Chavez, he says: 

“What really helped me was that just beforehand, I had taken a few moments of quiet, just to pay attention to what was going on for me, to listen to myself, to quiet my mind. So when he began shouting, I was ready. I could notice that my cheeks were reddening, that my jaw was a little clenched. I felt some fear, some anxiety. And by paying attention to those sensations and emotions, I was able to let them go so I could then listen freely to President Chavez.”

He recommends taking a moment of silence before heading into a sensitive conversation, so you can tune in to yourself. “I believe if we listened, truly, to ourselves first, we would find it a lot easier to listen to others.”

Insight #4: How to transform the world

Listening is a simple but powerful act because it not only transforms relationships; it has the potential to transform the world. Real listening has the power to cause a chain reaction: Ury believes that when people feel genuinely heard, they become inspired to listen to the next person that comes along. “Listening can be contagious.”

But he also notes that many challenges seem to plague us because somewhere along the line, we didn’t take the time and care to listen enough:

“I personally witnessed the enormous cost of conflict: the broken relationships, the broken families, the stressed-out workplaces, the ruinous lawsuits, the senseless wars. And what always strikes me is the biggest opportunity we have is to prevent these conflicts before they start. It almost always starts with one simple step: listening.”

So the next time you have a conversation, resolve to genuinely listen. One of the most powerful things you can do to transform the world is to give others your undivided attention. 

“Listen to the human being behind the words,” Ury says. “One of the biggest gifts we can give anyone is the gift of being heard.”

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