Richard Branson explains how to master the art of reading between the lines

By October 31, 2015 Business, Management No Comments
Richard Branson explains how to master the art of reading between the lines

When you start trying to become a better listener the ­first difference you’ll notice is similar to how you see things after you’ve lost some weight. It’s only once you manage to successfully drop 50 pounds that you are suddenly aware of all the people around you who could bene­fit from doing the same thing.

Watching others, one of the first things you will be aware of is that listening while keeping your mouth shut and saying nothing is a whole lot smarter than not listening, speaking up and saying nothing. As opposed to really listening, a lot of people get totally hung up on frequently interjecting with comments and questions they mistakenly think make them look smart.

This is seldom the case as, on the usually flawed assumption that they know what the speaker is going to say, instead of listening their focus shifts entirely to trying to formulate “smart” questions. In addition to the sheer rudeness of their constant interruptions, such people usually only succeed in looking foolish.

It all comes back to note-taking. Rather than constantly interrupting a speaker with self-serving questions, it is a whole lot smarter (and better table manners) to note down comments and questions and save them for later — if indeed the issues haven’t been covered by the time everyone gets to ask questions.

A wonderful Mark Twain quote is: “There is nothing so annoying as having two people talking when you’re busy interrupting.”

Interruptions when speaking are unfortunately a fact of life and we have to learn to live with them. I must confess, however, that when I am trying to express my thoughts to a group of people I ­find constant interruptions really exasperating. I have tremendous admiration for our CEO and president at Virgin Galactic George Whiteside’s uncanny ability to handle interruptions.

Perhaps he learned the art in his previous position as chief of staff at NASA where he was accustomed to dealing with highly opinionated politicos much of the time, but one way or the other he is a master at it.

If someone rudely interjects when George is speaking, it is a thing of beauty to watch. He will stop mid-sentence, smile and listen politely for as long as it takes them to get their point across. George will then acknowledge the person’s point of view or question and either respond there and then or say he will come back to it later before seamlessly resuming where he left off with his presentation.

It can sometimes help to try and ward off interruptions by asking for questions to be held until the end, but George’s technique certainly beats any other approach — particularly the popular one of simply ploughing ahead at a higher volume while totally ignoring the interruption from the floor.

A really skilled listener not only takes in what has been said but will also hear what has not been said. One of the easier results of this can allow questions such as, “I was intrigued to note that you failed to make any mention of XYZ. Does this mean you don’t consider it relevant to your proposal?”

A more interesting spin on the unspoken word, however, can be recognizing when someone is deliberately avoiding an issue that they should really be addressing. In a one-on-one chat with a mid-level manager, for example, if they painstakingly steer the subject away from any mention whatsoever of their divisional vice-president’s role in a failed initiative when they would seem to be a logical part of the dialogue, it may be enough to con­firm concerns about there being a cover-up going on.

An actual example of such a “deafening silence” was to be seen in the UK Department for Transport’s bungled handling of Virgin Trains’ 2012 bid to retain the West Coast franchise. Suffice it to say that in this context the government’s silence and disinclination to address cold hard numbers that showed our rival’s bid to be far riskier than the government believed and it set alarm bells ringing in my head that all was not well with the process.

Similarly, paying close attention to not just what someone says but the way in which they say it can help you to read between the lines — a place where the real story is often dramatically different to what the casual listener might understand is being said “on the lines.”

While what a speaker says can have several layers of meaning, how it is said can also be a giveaway to various subtexts. I have always found it hugely interesting to closely observe a speaker’s body language, facial expressions, the enunciation of certain words and all sorts of subtle innuendo, which can put a very different spin on what the words alone might convey.

I remember vividly watching British Airways chairman Lord King responding to a TV interviewer on the so-called “Dirty Tricks” case. When he asserted that no one on BA’s senior management team had sanctioned, or had any knowledge of, the unauthorized misdemeanors of his airline’s lower-level employees, the way he looked away from the camera as he said it made me seriously question the veracity of his statement.

When you take the time and effort to improve your listening skills by growing that extra pair of ears, you will be pleasantly surprised by how much your people will appreciate the new you. It is a strange facet of the human condition but invariably when you engage in a 30-minute dialogue with someone and manage the conversation in such a way that you get the other person to talk for 25 of the 30 minutes, the person who you allowed to do all the talking is highly likely to go away impressed by what a great conversationalist you are.

If on the other hand you yourself had spoken for 25 of the 30 minutes, that same other party would most likely be thinking, “What a talker! I couldn’t get a word in edgeways.”

Actively creating meaningful ad hoc or semi-formal opportunities to speak with rather than at your people, and then actually listening attentively to their responses, achieves some incredibly positive outcomes. In addition to what you’ll hear straight from the horse’s mouth that you’d never be able to find in a management status report, the fact that a senior person (you) cares enough about their opinions to actually ask for them — and then take the time and attention to listen to them — is of unbelievable value to all concerned.

It may be hard to believe but I’d even submit that such an event contributes much more for most people’s morale than giving them a raise! Show me a company where such interactions are a comfortable feature of the daily routine and you’ll be looking at a company with a culture that works better than most — in every sense of the word.

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