Debate, Then Align
Albert Einstein was quoted as having said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions."
It suggests that a deep understanding of a problem leads to more informed and valuable solutions. In supporting clients, this understanding (or lack thereof) is often closely tied to how well we listen. For example, consider the initial - and somewhat infamous - launch of Google Glass.
While developing Glass, the engineers lacked consensus on how the product would bring value to users. Some proposed its value was long-term wear for fashion; others suggested that it was more short-term and utilitarian. While unaligned on purpose, most engineers were aligned on the need for more time to understand and design for customer needs. Unfortunately, Sergey Brin catalyzed the Glass launch despite this recognized need. He decided futuristic novelty superseded understanding customer needs. Effectively, he decided to launch first and listen after.
Amid launch, Glass appeared in Vogue articles, on Diane von Furstenberg's runway at New York Fashion Week, and even on the faces of public figures like Prince Charles and Oprah. Beyond its burst in pop culture, Glass appealed to consumers' sense of wonder, giving them a real grasp of the futuristic technology they witnessed in the sci-fi movies of their childhood. Yet, despite being an extraordinary social spectacle (pun intended), Glass' actual value quickly became contestable.
Was it novel? Absolutely. Remember this was around 2013, and wearable technology was still somewhat of a burgeoning concept. The first Apple Watch was, at this point, a year shy of being announced (not even released, that was still two years away.) So, at the time, the idea of wearing smart glasses was incredibly disruptive. But novelty aside, was Glass useful? Decidedly less so. Criticism quickly amassed. Consumers complained of its clunkiness, short battery life, and technical bugs. Policymakers highlighted its threat to privacy laws. They worried about Glass's ability to record in sensitive areas like restrooms and movie theatres.
Perhaps, most importantly, it became evident that novelty did not outweigh the criticality of addressing consumers' actual needs. Sure, Glass could take photos and scroll the internet, but what significant problem was it solving? What value did it deliver that justified its steep price of $1,500? Unfortunately, both designers and consumers lacked the answer. So, Brin's decision to launch first and listen subsidiarily came back to haunt him (amongst other juicy details of this story). Thus, Glass flopped, exiting the public market almost as abruptly as it had entered.
So, even if you are Sergey Brin, listening is critical in creating useful, informed solutions- simple enough. But, as our fundamental suggests, what is less simple is that listening is not a passive or easy endeavor. It requires more from us than merely not speaking.
On an individual level, why does listening challenge us? How do we overcome these challenges to become more generous listeners and ultimately more effective problem-solvers? Consider the piece “The Art of Listening." While worth a proper read, here is the School of Life's piece boiled down for you:
- The Challenge: The School of Life suggests we often find listening to others challenging because we find it boring. Instead, we prefer to maximize the time we speak because we find talking about ourselves to be more fun.
- The Twist: Talking about ourselves to hear our own voices is a basic pleasure. The School of Life argues that the real pleasure of talking about ourselves more accurately lies in self-clarification. Self-clarification is "becoming clearer about who we are, what we feel, what we want, and what we might do next." While talking can yield this self-clarification, we sometimes end up best understanding bits of ourselves by listening to other people's stories.
- The Proof: We are willing to dedicate considerable time to literature, listening to the likes of Tolstoy, Proust, or Virginia Woolf. Proust aptly said, "Every reader of a novel is in effect the reader of his own life, whose shape he is better able to appreciate thanks to the spectacles which the novelist has offered him." We enjoy listening to these authors because they are experts at conveying what is Universally Relevant from what is Locally Specific. Unfortunately, the latter is where our average layman spends too much time (and where we as listeners often disengage).
- The Takeaway: While the average person is not as adept at narrowing in on the Universally Relevant as Proust or Woolf, we can refine the narrative by knowing how to listen and "edit" our companion. Here's how:
- Deter digressions and less-than-relatable details by saying things like "So a minute ago, you said that…" Here you can guide your conversation partner to the more coherent and emotionally 'alive' part of the story.
- Dissuade numb surface details and promote deeper emotional realities by asking, 'What did that feel like for you….'
- Emphasize your openness as a listener, saying things like, "Go on." This will deter your companion from self-censoring their ideas.
Through approaches like those in the “Art of Listening,” listening transcends being a chore and becomes interesting. Rather than fall victim to our conversations, we empower ourselves with the role of researcher, vying to explore and relate with those we are speaking with. This assumed role grants us that deep sense of understanding Einstein so highly revered in problem-solving. In turn, we can use this understanding to create solutions of actual value. Because remember even Oprah and British royalty cannot bolster a useless idea to last.