How to practice Active Listening

How investors test for “listening” skills in entrepreneurs

One of 21 skills I try to look for in entrepreneurs is listening – more specifically active listening. The reason for testing this skill is obvious. More than wanting to be listened to, I look for whether the entrepreneur is listening to respond or listening to understand.

Most entrepreneurs find it hard to listen, in fact most type A people are in roles that requires them to be constantly “pitching” and “selling” their vision, company and product. So, they are always in “objection handling” mode.

While I understand that most of the questions that are going to be asked by the investor or customer are likely ones that the entrepreneur has heard before, nonetheless, I am seeking to understand if the entrepreneur can still parse, ask relevant questions to clarify and be thoughtful about their responses.

There are 3 dead-giveaways when I know someone is not listening.

First, the entrepreneur says “Yes, Yeah or Uh Huh” a lot even before sentences are complete – usually this means they are pretty distracted and looking for an opening to get their word in.

Second, they never probe to ask questions themselves, instead are always providing answers. A key part of listening is to understand, pause, reflect and let silence take over at times – which may be awkward at times, but it works.

Third, they are distracted easily and end up answering the wrong question, keep using filler phrases such as “I understand” or “Sure, but…” often.

What we look for is listening first. That does not mean we are looking for someone to change their mind based on our questions. We are seeking to understand if they have the cognitive ability to keep their “mind” open not just their “ears”.

You can hear well, but not listen at all.

The next question is how can someone listen well?

The first is to listen with more than your ears – listening with your mouth – asking more clarifying open-ended and closed questions. This is the best way to force yourself to actually ask more questions.

The second is to use silence strategically – pause and reflect on the question. Use the ability to tell the other person “Let me think about that” before you start to answer their statement, question or comment.

Finally use non-verbal communication to listen if it is a one-one, face-to-face meeting, including using your eyes – focus on the person or taking notes, and use time to summarize or paraphrase their comments.


7 thoughts on “How investors test for “listening” skills in entrepreneurs”

  1. Younger entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to say; “VCs, Advisors and Angels talk too much and go to lengths to expand the idea’ Something I must be doing, not them. I want idea and growth ownership. **PHEW** My 2 cents, both parties need to understand, nobody does anybody a favour.

  2. Mukund, good post as usual. Please, can you write about the other 20 skills 🙂 ? Thanks.

  3. Most of this is “Communication 101” and applies just as well outside of the tech/startup environment.

  4. In general, at least inexperienced entrepreneurs are anxious. For them, admitting to a problem is like giving the investors a reason not to invest (in the entrepreneur’s mind). And quite often, they are impatient because the questions are usually the same though time is limited! Finding a sense of calm before a fund-raising meeting is an art, hopefully that’ll make entrepreneurs better listeners and less anxious to please!

  5. Great write-up. This article could also have been titled – How women test for “listening” skills in potential husbands.

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