Listening - The Golden Key To Understanding People

If there is one department that most of us could use some improvement in, it is our ability to understand each other. The vast majority of emotional stress that we experience in dealing with each other would disappear with better levels of understanding- it is our inability to do so that leads to interpersonal conflict in the first place. So what could help in this regard, and make us all better partners, spouses, teammates and friends? 

I wonder if the following scenario between A and B sound as familiar to you as they do to me:A: “I feel so tired and overworked. My projects are all going crazy right now, there’s so much on my plate and I don’t know how to handle it.”
B: “You think you’re overworked, have you seen what’s been on my plate lately? Anyways, you should just stop two of those projects because we can all see they aren’t going anywhere.”
A: “You just don’t get it…”

This could have been between partners in a relationship, people at the workplace or even between friends. This situation went wrong because the party (A) who decided to share something personal failed to receive any recognition for their emotional feelings about the matter, and the party (B) who was listening interpreted the situation entirely from their own perspective, and thus responded in a way that wasn’t helpful.  I contend that the party (B) who was “listening” wasn’t doing anything of the sort; instead he/she was hearing with the intent to fire back a reply.

The key to unlock this problem is in the quoted paragraph below, first shared with me by my wise former coach Si Ekin (whom I’ll forever thank for it):

"When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you have not done what I have asked. When I ask you to listen and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel the way I do, you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as it may seem. Listen. All I asked you to do was listen, not talk or do. Just hear me. I am not helpless. Perhaps discouraged for faltering, but not helpless. When you do something for me that I need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness. But when you accept as fact that I feel what I feel no matter how irrational, then I can stop trying to convince you and get on with understanding what’s behind that irrational feeling and when that’s clear, the answer will be obvious and I won’t need advice." - Anonymous

I recommend re-reading the above paragraph several times; I try to read it afresh at least once a month. The concept of “listening with the intent to understand”, as opposed to “listening with the intent to speak back” is extremely powerful. It takes years to master (especially for thick-headed, argumentative cavemen like me). Resisting the temptation to give in to the first thing that pops into our head when hearing something we don’t immediately like is a critical skill.

Listening to understand will improve your interactions with people over small and large matters (both are significant over time). In the case of large matters in particular, it’s worth keeping in mind that when someone has had the courage to approach you and take your ear on something in confidence, you should reward them with genuine understanding, not punish them with a counter-argument. Questions are then asked in the interest of learning and understanding, not in the interest of laying the groundwork for a predetermined response. This single interaction will leave both parties feeling satisfied, and move their relationship forward in a positive way. This by far beats the alternative scenario of nonchalance or irritation from the one party and a sense of indignation or resentment from the other.  So, with this principle in mind we could imagine a different scenario to the one above:

A: “I feel so tired and overworked. My projects are all going crazy right now, there’s so much on my plate and I don’t know how to handle it.”
B: “Oh, that must be tough… so how do you feel about all this right now? Is there anything I can do to help?”
A: “Don’t worry, I’ll figure this out, I just felt like talking to someone…” Voila! We have real communication. 

Applying this listening principle has really improved my ability to communicate, and that to me equals a better life. Good luck in trying it out, and if you have any other tips on how to better listen to people please let me know! P.S: For reasons I’m not quite sure of, women are usually superior listeners to men. Dr John Gray examines this general concept in the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (which I recommended checking out).

10 Things To Take On Board The Plane To Revolutionize Your Air Travel


Flying between Cape Town and San Francisco is no joke. Whether you connect via London, Zurich, New York or Atlanta, there is no way to escape the multiple stops, 9 time zones and 24+ hour journey. And if you’re an entrepreneur who’s company is backed venture investors and hasn’t yet made a mega exit for them, you’re sitting at the back of the plane. Yes, that’s me.

As I sit here on the plane writing this blog post, I am mindful of the things I’ve learned to bring on board with me to make the journey easier. Here is my list of 10 key items for long haul flying in economy class:

1. Water bottle (a full one).
The number one reason people suffer from jet lag and generally feel like crap after long flights is severe dehydration. Draining those tiny plastic cups every time an air hostess offers you one is nowhere near enough- take a water bottle and sip on it throughout the flight. 2. Neck pillow.
The lousy pillow that you are provided isn’t going to help you sleep, and in any case there is no room to lie down comfortably on it. A neck pillow makes it easy to support your head while sitting up, dramatically improving your quality of sleep on the plane.

3. Ear plugs.
Airplane cabins are filled with a loud “din” that is a bit too uncomfortable to be considered white noise. Ear plugs drown that sound right out and make things a lot quieter and easier to concentrate, or get some sleep. As I write this a baby is crying in front of me and I can barely hear it ;-) 4. Protein bars.
Do you find yourself eating more junk food (e.g. chocolate cake, croissants) on long flights than is normal for you, and feeling bloated and unhealthy afterward? This tends to happen because (a) they do feed you more junk on the plane and (b) you hungry so you eat it. Instead, skip the junk and bring along tasty, nutritious protein bars than you can snack on or eat along with some of your airplane food- you will feel more satisfied and healthier as a result.  

5. Sweater.
I have no idea how draughts appear in a pressurized cabin but they do. The blanket you are provided is a good start but not enough to keep your arms and chest warm throughout the flight, so bring a comfortable sweater and bask in your warmth as everyone around you tries in vain to cover their entire bodies with that slim airplane blanket. 6. Books/Kindle
Flights give you access to long periods of uninterrupted attention, making them ideal for reading books. Perhaps due to the cramped, less comfortable environment on the plane I find it easier to read flowing prose that isn’t extremely dense (e.g. Freakonomics over Socrates).  

7. iPod.
A lot of time gets wasted when queuing at the boarding gate, preparing for take off and landing as well as getting off the plane. Keeping an iPod handy would make these idle periods much more pleasurable if you listen to some good music, or in my case, audiobooks. 8. Pen and paper.
Sitting on your own for 11 hours at a time is sure to give birth to some interesting ideas, so write them down! At the very least, having a pen will ensure you fill out your international arrival and customs forms en route.

9. Anti-jet lag pills.
Crossing 9 time zones in one day can really mess with your body’s internal rhythms. Taking an anti-jet lag remedy from your local pharmacy (in my case a tablet every 2 hours during the flight) might make a big improvement to those whose systems are wrecked after a long flight. (Side note: I actually forgot my anti-jet lag pills for this trip, so I’m hoping that they were just placebos anyway). 10. iPad.
If you have one, the iPad is a must to take on flights. It allows you to easily read documents and ebooks, and get plenty of writing and note taking done. This entire blog post was written on my iPad. The long battery life (your laptop battery will die after 2 hours) and small form factor (your laptop is uncomfortable to use in such cramped quarters) make the iPad ideal for air travel. Check back to the photo at the top of this post.

I hope that this list gives you some ideas for your next long distance flight. It will improve the experience, promise.
What do you think of this list? What do you take on board the plane that makes your flight better?