Why do you listen to people? When I ask this question of clients and others I tend to get answers focussed on the content: “listening lets me learn something I don’t know”. There is no argument from me on that point. But why would you listen to others when you don’t think you can learn anything from them? One obvious answer is that you are probably wrong about that, and you almost certainly will learn something. But here I’m interested in another answer that is important to all collaborators.

In a recent opinion piece, New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the “politics of humiliation” and suggested that humiliation is one of the strongest, most motivating emotions we can experience. He quotes Nelson Mandela as saying “there is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated”. Then Friedman goes on to make the point that the countervailing emotion is respect. “If you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them”.

And this brings me to the second answer to my earlier question. One of the reasons to really listen to someone, even when we don’t expect to learn something from them, is to show them respect and affirm their dignity. As Friedman writes: “Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening – not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.”

Those who feel humiliated will never collaborate; Those who feel disrespected will never collaborate; Those who feel unheard or ignored will never collaborate unless and until they feel respected. And as Friedman says, one way to clearly demonstrate our respect for another is to listen to them deeply.

Friedman is writing in the context of US politics, but the message seems universal to me. In order to work effectively with others to tackle hard problems together we need to genuinely respect them, and demonstrate that respect in the way we act. Listening holds the key.

So now let me listen to you. What is your takeaway from Friedman’s article?