There's absolutely nothing harder or more important for any entrepreneur to learn than how to listen, carefully and effectively. To everyone in your life - family, friends, and peers. And to everyone in your business - customers, investors and directors. One of my favorite INC. pieces is called "What I Learned from My Waitress", which I wrote years ago and which I re-read every so often just to remind myself how important listening is.  For young entrepreneurs, listening is a skill to master. For more seasoned entrepreneurs, it's a skill that's easy to forget because we figure we already know everything. Seems that as you get older, not only your hearing goes, but quite often so does your listening.

Aggressive listening is a professional practice that takes vigilance and constant exercise because the inbound messages are continually changing and only rarely do they present themselves on a silver platter. In fact, by the time they eventually become obvious, it's usually (and painfully) too late to do anything effectively about them. That's the exact inverse of good ideas. By the time everyone agrees that they make sense, it's too late to make anything valuable out of them.

The best businesses listen carefully, adapt quickly and respond immediately to the progressive and ever-expanding demands of their customers. And "customers" in this context means a cluster of constituencies far more populous than simply the actual consumers of their products and services. Vendors, partners, media, regulators, legislators and even competitors are all part of the essential mix. And, in some ways, keeping a careful eye on your competition might be the most important job of all.

Listening to competitors isn't something you do because you necessarily plan to react to or replicate everything they're doing. You do it because you might learn a lot from them about what not to do or even things - amazingly enough - that you could and/or shouldbe doing. Good companies rarely lose to the competition; they lose because they've lost their way internally and they no longer understand what it takes to satisfy their customers. They take themselves out of the game through indifference, inattention, or simple ignorance. Today, it pays to pay attention and be willing to learn from everyone because someone else may have simply figured things out sooner than you. In fact, given the pace of change these days, the ability to learn faster than your competition might be the only remaining and sustainable competitive advantage. If you're not listening, you learn nothing.

Our daily lives are so cluttered and noisy, and the constant flow of information is so overwhelming, that we are, increasingly and of necessity, opting to filter out, simplify, and often just outright ignore potentially critical data and other inputs. Because we have no time to do otherwise. Think of this as attention triage. We take our best guess and our best shot, and we keep our fingers crossed that we didn't let any of the really good stuff slip by while we weren't looking.

FOMO is very much alive and well although it's more properly called information anxiety in this case. We're constantly jumping from place to place, source to source, and site to site and we're spending less and less time at each stop along the way.  So, we're gathering and absorbing less and less. In this frantic and "phygital" world, we're all like dogs chasing squirrels.

And, of course, the easiest things to shut off (and shut out) are the things that we've already decided we disagree with. Why would anyone waste time listening to someone whose views are so clearly and demonstrably wrong-headed? Our technologies increasingly cater to and abet this studiously ignorant approach - they feed us what we want to see and hear so we'll stick around. The filter bubble makes it almost impossible to discover anything new or different.  It's always the same old news. And the process spirals ever more inward where we seek out only those views and visions which reinforce and comfort our cozy little world views.

But there's a way to break this vicious cycle if you're willing to learn to listen in a new way. This isn't pretending to listen while you're actually just waiting to talk. And it's not tuning the talker out as you plan your next remarks. This is about listening in a way that makes it possible to learn. And there are several keys to learning how to listen effectively.

(1)  Listen even if you don't like what you're hearing. Tune in, rather than tuning out.

(2)  Listen with the specific intent to try to understand where the other person is coming from. To hear their side of the story and their perspective.

(3)  Listen to understand the real differences between you and the other side because they might be a lot less substantial than you think.

(4)  And finally, ask what the others really need to get to some agreement.

I learned this last lesson from the new Bohemian Rhapsody movie. Freddie Mercury and the guys have had their final falling out and now he's trying to get the band back together for one last performance. There's plenty of hard feelings and tough talk to go around and things don't seem to be going anywhere.

And then Freddie asks his mates a simple question: "What's it going to take for you all to forgive me?"  This is an open-ended question, but it helps to move the conversation from feelings to facts and, while the demands may not be realistic or reasonable or achievable, at least they're out there on the table and up for discussion.  Sometimes all those differences and disputes are far more manageable than anyone might have imagined.

All it often takes is taking the time to listen.

Published on: Feb 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.