William Ury
The Power of Listening
TEDxSanDiego 2014

There’s an ancient and well-known philosophical riddle that asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” A scientific view is that, while a tree will make waves in the air, to make a sound, it takes an ear to hear it.

My question is, if a person speaks and offers a TED Talk, for example, and no one listens, is that really communication? I believe that listening is the missing half of communication. It is absolutely necessary but often overlooked.

We live in an age we call the Age of Communication. Certainly, with cell phones, texts, tweets and emails, there is a lot of talking going on. But how much listening can there really be with so much interruption and distraction?

My passion for the last 30 years has been helping people get to “yes” in very tough negotiations. From family feuds to boardroom battles, from labor strikes to civil wars. I hear a lot of talking but I don’t hear a lot of real listening.

We think of negotiation as being about talking. In fact, it’s really about listening. If you study the behavior of successful negotiators, you find that they listen far more than they talk. After all, we’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should listen at least twice as much as we speak.

Why listen? Why is it so important? Let me tell you a story. Some years ago, I was in the country of Venezuela serving as a third party between the government and the political opposition at a time of intense conflict with a lot of people fearing a civil war. My colleague, Francisco Diaz, and I had an appointment with the President, Hugo Chavez at 9:00 PM at the Presidential Palace.

Finally, at midnight, we were ushered in to see the President who had his entire cabinet arrayed behind him. He asked me, “So, Ury, what do you think of the situation going on here?”

I said, “Mr. President, I’ve been talking to your ministers here and to the opposition. I think you’re making some progress.” “Progress? What do you mean progress?” he shouted. “You’re blind. You’re not seeing all the dirty tricks those traitors are up to.” He leaned in very close to my face and proceeded to shout.

What was I going to do? Part of me felt like defending myself, naturally. But what good would it do for me to get into an argument with the President of Venezuela? How would that advance peace? So I just listened. I gave him my full attention. I listened to where he was coming from. President Chavez was famous for making eight hour speeches.

After 30 minutes of me just nodding and listening, I saw his shoulders slowly sag. He said to me in a very weary tone of voice, “So, Ury, what should I do?” That’s the sound of a human mind opening to listen. I said, “Mr. President, it’s almost Christmas. The country needs a break. Last year, all the festivities were canceled because of the conflict. Why not propose a truce this time so that people can enjoy the holidays with their families? After that, maybe everybody will be in a better mood to listen.”

He said, “That’s a great idea. I’m going to announce that in my next speech.” His mood has completely shifted. How? Through the simple power of listening. Because I listened to him, he was more ready to listen to me.

There are at least three important reasons why it’s important to listen in any negotiation or conflict. The first is that it helps us understand the other side. Negotiation, after all, is an exercise in influence. You’re trying to change someone else’s mind. How can you possibly change someone else’s mind if you don’t know where their mind is? Listening is key.

The second reason is just as important. It helps us connect with the other human being. It helps us build rapport. It builds trust. It shows we care. After all, everybody wants to be heard.

The third reason is, as with President Chavez, it makes it more likely that the other person will listen to us. It helps get to “yes.”

In short, listening may be the cheapest concession we can make in a negotiation. It costs us nothing and it brings huge benefits. Listening may be the golden key that opens the door to human relationship.

How do we listen? It turns out that we often take listening for granted as something easy and natural. But in fact, at least in my experience, real genuine listening is something that needs to be learned and practiced every day. In ordinary listening, we’re hearing the words. We’re often thinking, “Where do I agree? Where do I disagree? What am I going to say in response?” In other words, the focus is on us.

In genuine listening, however, the spotlight moves to the other person. We put ourselves in their shoes. We tune into their wavelength. We listen from within their frame of reference, not just ours. That’s not easy. In genuine listening, we listen not just for what’s being said but for what’s not being said. We listen not just to the words but to what’s behind the words. We listen for the underlying emotions, feelings and needs. We listen for what that person really needs or wants.

Let me give you an example. About a year and a half ago, I was invited to help a Brazilian entrepreneur by the name of Abilio Diniz. He was tracked in a titanic legal dispute with his French business partner over the control of Brazil’s largest retailer. The Financial Times called it perhaps the biggest cross-continental boardroom showdown in recent history.

It had gone on for two and a half years. It was immensely costly and stressful, not only to both parties but to their families and the 150,000 employees of the company. When I sat down with Abilio in his home, I listened to his story.

After that, I had a question. I said, “Abilio, help me understand here. What do you really want?” He said, “Well, I want the stock at a certain price. I want the company headquarters. I want the elimination of the non-compete clause.” He gave me a list. As I listened, I heard something deeper there that was unspoken.

I asked him, “Abilio, you’re a man who seems to have everything. What are these things really going to give you? What do you most want in your life?” He paused for a moment and thought about it. Finally, he said, “Freedom. I want my freedom. I want to be free to pursue my business dreams. I want to be free to spend time with my family.” That was it.

I was hearing the human being behind the words, not just the champion businessman. Once we were clear about his deepest need, then the negotiation itself, while challenging, became a lot easier. In four short days, my colleagues and I, by listening to the other side, were able to take this titanic dispute and resolve it with a settlement that left both sides highly satisfied.

As Abilio being a friend in the process later told me, “I got everything I wanted. But most importantly, I got my life back.” How did that happen? Through the simple power of listening.

If listening is so useful, why isn’t everyone doing it? To tell you the truth, it’s not so easy. If I reflect on my own experience for a moment, there are times when I feel like I’m listening pretty well in my work, only to go home and find out I’m not listening so well to my wife. It’s humbling.

What makes it so hard to listen is that there is so much going on in our minds. There is so much noise and distraction that we don’t have the mental and emotional space to be able to truly listen to the other side. How do we clear our minds? It may seem odd, but the secret is, if we want to listen to the other side, we have to learn to listen to ourselves first.

When I was sitting there with President Chavez, what really helped me was that, just beforehand, I had taken a few moments of quiet to pay attention to what was going on for me. I listened to myself to quiet my mind. When he began shouting, I was ready. I could notice that my cheeks were reddening and my jaw was a little clenched. I felt some fear and anxiety. By paying attention to those sensations and emotions, I was able to let them go so that I could truly listen to President Chavez.

What if, before an important, delicate or conversation, we took a moment of silence just to tune in and listen to where we are? I believe if we truly listened to ourselves first, we would find it a lot easier to listen to others.

The final question is, if we listened more, what difference would it make in the world? I believe it would make a huge difference. In the course of my mediation work, I personally witnessed the enormous cost of conflict, the broken relationships, the broken families, the stressed out work places, the ruinous law suits and the senseless wars. What always strikes me is that the biggest opportunity that we have is to prevent these conflicts even before they start.

How do we do that? It’s not easy, but it almost always starts with one simple step. Listening. This is my dream. A listening revolution that can turn this Age of Communication into an Age of Listening. It’s an age of true communication.

Imagine for a moment a world in which every child learns to listen at an early age. What if we taught listening in school, like we teach reading, as a core skill? After all, listening is how you read people. Imagine a world in which parents learn to listen to their children. What better way is there for us to teach our children to listen to us than for us to listen to them?

What better way for us to show our children that they truly matter? What better way is there to show our love? As an extra bonus, maybe we’d see happier marriages and fewer divorces as couples learned to listen to each other. Imagine a world in which leaders learned how to listen to their people. What if we chose leaders based on their ability to listen, not just talk?

What if listening became the norm in our organizations and not just the exception? What if on radio and TV we had not just talk shows, but listen shows? What if we had not just peace talks, but peace listens? I firmly believe that we’d get to “yes” a lot more often.

We might not eliminate all conflict, but we would avert a lot of fights and wars. Everybody would be much better off. I, very happily, might be out of a job. That’s my dream.

While it may seem audacious, it’s not that complicated. Listening can be a chain reaction in which each person who is genuinely listened to feels naturally inspired to listen to the next. Listening can be contagious.

I invite you to start this chain reaction today, right here, right now. In your next conversation with a colleague, client, partner or child, friend or stranger, give them your full attention. Listen to the human being behind the words. One of the biggest gifts we can give anyone is the gift of being heard. With the simple power of listening now, we can transform our relationships, our families and our world for the better, ear by ear. Thank you for listening.