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George Harrison: Now That Guy Knew How to Listen

Just like musicians, executives must hear themselves and others at the same time.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

“Start again,” Hector, my guitar teacher, said patiently. He’s half my age, but that’s not stopping him from making me get the 83-note solo in Let It Be right. When he leans over and highlights in red note number 60, where I blew it (again), I’m reminded that listening—intently listening—is among the critical skills in life.

After weeks of work, I finally seemed to master George Harrison’s subtle solo. Every note. Every slide. Satisfied with my progress, Hector picks up his guitar to play the chords along with me. Just like the Beatles (if the Beatles were comprised of a middle-aged guy in a suit and a music teacher with the unflappable demeanor of Job). And you know what happened next? My painstakingly rehearsed solo completely fell apart. I had no idea how to match my timing to his. After just a bar or two, I gave up in despair and cursed aloud.

“It’s alright,” Hector said. “It’s hard to know when to play what. I’ve spent years working on it, and it’s still hard.” And that was my breakthrough moment: Playing with others requires hearing them while simultaneously hearing yourself. Of course it does.

Playing with others requires hearing them while simultaneously hearing yourself.

The same principal applies to work—or any other part of your life, for that matter. What are you saying, what are others saying, and what is each of you hearing? The first two parts of the question seem simple enough, but it’s the combination of all three that actually matters.

Consider this scenario: You’re presenting to a room full of managers. The lights are dim and your (no doubt masterful) PowerPoint is projected big as a mastiff on the screen. You point to a slide and say, “Here’s how we change the company from failing in the marketplace to winning.” There’s some nodding, but one man at the corner of the table purses his lips. He doesn’t say anything, and you sense the unease.

There are several potential reasons for his demeanor:

• His leg has fallen asleep and he’s trying to move it.

• He’s so bored he’s about to fall asleep and is biting his lip to remain conscious.

• He feels personally connected to what you just called a “market failure.”

One way to find out is to pause your presentation and ask directly, “Bob, do you have something you’d like to bring up?” That can work at times, but it’s also like bringing a rehearsing band to a full stop mid-song. There’s suddenly no music, and everyone is staring at you and Bob for an explanation. What might have been a minor tuning issue may erupt into the bass player storming out of rehearsal in frustration, (Bass players. I know, right?)

The way to avoid such unpleasantries is by listening. What did you just say? What can you “hear” in Bob’s reaction? How are others reacting? If you’d been listening to the room from the start, you’d know if Bob had been making the same face before you got up, or if he reacted in a similar way to another presenter he disagreed with.

If you’re confident Bob is showing unease in direct response to your last sentence, you can adjust your tone: “I know we haven’t all talked through this yet, and maybe my wording is clumsy, but let me ask the folks here if they see some opportunities in this idea.”

Alternatively, if you had observed Bob making that face repeatedly throughout other presentations, you would realize that it probably had had less to do with what you just said and perhaps more to do with what he just ate. In that case, you would just plow forward with your current tone. You gotta listen for the chord changes, even in the middle of your own solo. It’s not easy. It’s the real work.

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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