The art of listening

May marks mental health awareness month, and here, Virginie O’Shea founder of Firebrand Research, discusses the importance of listening, considering other perspectives and respect.

It’s mental health awareness month again and I find myself wondering when everything got so black and white in the markets and the workplace. Navigating discussions with clients, colleagues and peers can be a veritable minefield, adding a lot more stress into daily interactions. But it doesn’t have to be like that. 

My last blog highlighted the tensions that have crept up between the crypto and ESG communities, but the split there is indicative of a wider and more insidious trend over the last few years. We seem to have moved into a very polarised era, where instead of listening to each other, we’re shouting over each other. Instead of trying to understand other viewpoints or even just listen to them, we ignore them. 

It might be useful to a politician to call their opposition “woke” or a “fascist”, but this kind of language has no place in the workplace. As children, we’re often taught to listen first and then speak, but somehow that’s been lost somewhere along the way in industry dialogue. Listening to monologues, delivered in hyperbolic, ranting fashion has become commonplace at some industry events. 

A keynote is meant to make you think, not incite the audience to insult other people’s beliefs or dismiss valid concerns. We need more balance in our panels, in our discussions – we need to consider other perspectives. Diverse panels mean diverse views. And, no, this isn’t a “woke thing”.  

Now, I myself do enjoy poking fun at certain things on social media, but when it comes to day-to-day interactions, I’m genuinely always interested in hearing all perspectives. I might not think crypto is a good investment opportunity, for example, but if someone is willing to engage in a discussion (read: not a monologue), I’m more than happy to oblige. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule in terms of what you should have to listen to. If someone is being verbally abusive or racist, sexist or homophobic, for example, that doesn’t fall under reasonable behaviour. But for industry topics of relevance, a reasoned discussion or debate is healthy. 

The saying used to be never discuss politics, religion or sex at a dinner party or the workplace, but it is nigh on impossible to avoid such topics and neither should you. We aren’t in Victorian times, after all. We just need to understand that people have different perspectives and that we can’t always agree with each other all of the time. How boring would the world be if we did? How boring are panels where everyone agrees with each other too? 

I’ve gotten into meditation over the last few years (though anyone that knows me, knows I’m far from zen), and one of the principles of mindfulness is active listening. Listening fully and then responding. Not listening with half an ear and crafting your response before they’ve finished speaking (I know, we all do it). 

The crux of all of this is to listen. Really listen to the other person. If something is upsetting you about their perspective, tell them. Explain that you might not want to talk about a certain topic, for example, but do engage. When you respond, treat them with respect, even if you’re on opposite sides of one spectrum. There are likely other things that you actually agree on. 

We have enough stress to deal with in our daily lives, without making our interactions more fraught and challenging. Remember that you’re not an island. The other people you’re talking to are also humans. Unless you’re talking to a AI-powered machine, and that’s the topic of another blog entirely…