Listening Article

McKinsey Quarterly has just posted a good article on the importance of listening for executives. Listening is not only one of the most important skills in corporate culture, but sadly also one of the most under appreciated.  One of my personal quests has been to increase my listening skills. Though I’ve made baby steps of progress, I’ve seen a huge amount of value from an active listening practice.

The article lays out three behaviors that help with listening: show respect, keep quiet, and challenge assumptions. If I were going to pick key pillars of listening, the first two would definitely be on there with the third one being mentioned as a result of effective listening. That said, here are some recent examples from my life for each of these.

Show Respect

I was meeting with a producer about starting a new project.  He had spent the last month working on a plan and was presenting it to me.  I had some legitimate worries that I’d expressed to him a couple times already, but had assumed they were being ignored.  Luckily I realized my bias beforehand and so instead of going in thinking of the worries, I would go in assuming the producer had heard me, and was someone who could handle the project.

Going in to a meeting assuming someone is going to fail is a pretty big vote of no-confidence and shows a complete the lack of respect.  Putting myself in his shoes, I wouldn’t want to have spent a month working on a proposal without really being listened to and fairly evaluated based on the results of the work. Suffice it to say, he did rock it out of the park, had completely quelled any worries I had, did an awesome job listening as I brought up new points, and I’m very excited about working with him and seeing the results of an awesome project. I firmly believe that had I not challenged my bias beforehand, I would have done him, and the project, a disservice by not greenlighting it, or micromanaging decisions.

Keep Quiet

In the McKinsey article the author says a good listening benchmark is the 80/20 rule. That 80% of the time is spent with the other person speaking while you try to listen 20% of the time.  Additionally, that 20% of the time should be spent clarifying and questioning the listener more than spouting off your own beliefs.

In another meeting that day I effectively applied the 80/20 rule. Someone in the company had been having a tough time, and I was certain I saw and understood the problem.  Turns out I had been wrong, and after listening to how she was viewing the situation, it became pretty clear that the solutions I (and everyone else) had saw were incorrect. The real problem was everyone was trying to solve different problems and not communicating that properly.  A little bit of listening and I was able to point out to this person a new way of looking at the world, and have been espousing that view to others with the same challenge.

Challenge Assumptions 

I give caution to the idea that challenging assumptions is a behavior of good listening. Challenging assumptions is the result of great listening, not a key behavior. That said, if you’re not understanding what people’s assumptions are, then you’re not really listening.  In the case above, everyone was solving different problems and wasn’t listening to the base assumptions.  If you can’t really get down to the deeper assumptions of what someone is trying to communicate, then only hearing the words isn’t really listening. The other drawback to having “challenge assumptions” as a key listening behavior is that it’s possible to spend a conversation challenging assumptions with questions that are really statements.



Beat the Lag

I don’t have many enemies in life, but jetlag is one of them.  Anyone who does a lot of international travel knows how bad it can be.  I hate it. I hate it more than I hate hell and the Montagues. That said I’ve gotten to a place where I beat it on 90% of my long trips. Here are my travel tips and tricks:

  • Pre-lag – If you can either get on the new sleep schedule a day before you leave it will significantly make your first day in the new place easier. In my recent trip to Ethiopia for example, I stayed up all night playing League of Legends. I then slept on the SEA-LAX morning flight and just as importantly, fell asleep for the first three hours of LAX-DXB (Dubai).  Usually, when travelling to Europe, I don’t stay up all night but instead try and wake up at ~3:30am.
  • Rhythm Method – Similar to sleep, your biological clock ticks to eating cycles. The sooner you move to the new timezone the easier it will be for your body to adjust. Planes generally feed you on a consistent schedule. Big meal an hour in, and then light snack an hour before. This doesn’t line up with meal times in your destination. If you can have the self control / snack foresight to instead eat closer to where it will be in your destination, it will make it a lot easier. In my LAX-DXB example, I slept through the big meal, but when I woke had a few snacks to tide me over until an hour and a half before landing, where I tried to gorge as it was 6:00 local time.
  • Super Hydrate – Water is life.  They don’t give you enough water on planes. Flying that altitude is very dehydrating. Stress is dehydrating. Recycled air is dehydrating.  Proper hydration is super key.  I try to double the amount of water I normally drink.  A half a liter an hour would be a good baseline, though more is better. This also applies to before and after taking off. A good way to not sleep the whole evening is to go to be dehydrated. Lack of water also impairs sleep quality in general. So drink water.
  • Teetotal – Do you know what dehydrates you? Beer, wine and booze. It’s fun to drink on planes.  I’ve had my turns of getting stinko at 30,000 feet, but know that you’ll pay the penalty in making the jet lag worse.  If you do drink, make sure that you’re drinking a half liter of water per glass of booze on top of your already increased water consumption.  This also applies to after you land, as alcohol consumption impaires sleep. I just avoid planes in general and try to avoid more than a glass of wine or a cider when I land.
  • Decaffeinate – You know what also dehydrates you? Coffee and tea. You know what also throws off your sleep schedule? Coffee and tea. The big caveat here is that it does help you stay awake and alert you. I make sure to avoid coffee or tea ~eight hours before wanting to sleep. Nothing is worse than your body wanting to sleep while your mind takes a ride on a caffeine induced thought train.
  • Make the Sun Come – You know how birds fall asleep with that sheet over their cage trick because they think it’s night? We’re no different. If you’re feeling sleepy after you’re on the ground, go for a walk. Even if you’re in a land of no sun (see also: Seattle. Dublin) it’s better to be outside so your body can see the day. So make sure to not just lock yourself in a conference room all day. That won’t help your body adjust.


Good luck!  I’m also looking to improve the Vechey Method. Any tricks I should add that anyone else has?


On our last and final day in Ethiopia, Scott Harrison asked us if we wanted to visit one. final. village. The second of two villages that co-traveller and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg had funded.  Our total travel time that day had already been five hours and this last village was an additional hour and a half on a paved road, followed by another hour on a sketchy dirt road. We were weary but with the promise of amazing geography, and the reminder that the villagers had been awaiting our arrival all day, we sallied forth.

The trip to the village ended up being one of the best.  Driving on the top of a plateau with valleys and cliffs meters off the road , we made slow time, but every vista incredible.  Where most villages were rockin’ the old testament style architecture the few buildings we saw looked prehistoric.  With layers of mountains in the distance we drove through foggy clouds, shared the road with camel caravans, sat on the top of the Land Cruiers to feel the wind and get a better view, stopped to take photos on awkward peaks to capture the last moments of the sunset, and even chased donkeys around the mountain side.

At the end of the road was a village. This village was in a valley, loosely connected to 5,000 other villagers. This was the final of 27 wells in that cluster.  For everyone in that area, charity:water’s well work was complete.  Instead of getting sick from drinking water, they received energy. Instead of the mothers walking six hours a day for hydration, they farmed. School, not survival, was now the main goal of these children.

The villagers thanked us as best they could. Threw popcorn, sang songs, danced, made injera and honey. They gave us a coffee ceremony. Speeches and hugs. But for them this well was a miracle.

Out of Africa

A 6:20 wake up in Mekelle Ethiopia followed by a 8:00am flight to Addis Ababa with a seven hour layover until the four and a half hour flight to Dubai with a bonus layover of three hours before the seven and a half hour flight to London.  One Heathrow Express plus taxi later and I’m in my hotel, ready for free to play casino gaming.

I’ll be decompressing for awhile but here are three quick thoughts about my trip:

  • The combination of seeing an amazing place with new friends, meeting amazing people who dedicate their life’s work to doing good, and being part of something so much bigger than myself has made this the best vacation I’ve ever had (sorry Italy)
  • The need for clean water around the world is cemented in my soul.  To hear that one billion people lack clean water is a statistic, to go to a village of 200 and bear witness to the lack of water is a tragedy
  • The solutions are there.  The work charity:water is doing to bring clean water to villages with integrity to their donors is amazing.  Within my life time I will be able to live in a world where everyone has access to clean and safe drinking water, in part thanks to the work that Scott Harrison and charity:water is doing

So many people have donated to my Out of Office campaign that with my matching we will be able to give hundreds of people access to clean and safe drinking water.  That is priceless. I thank you, and some fortunate village thanks you.



Annoying New Friends

One of the best parts of coming to Ethiopia is the opportunity to make new friends while seeing an amazing country.

Here is a perfect illustration.

Sent from a phone. I actually have no idea what it’s like to send mail on a normal keyboard.

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