Kim writes in Radical Candor that Apple CEO Tim Cook is a master of silence, a quiet listener. She describes Steve Jobs as a loud listener. What’s the difference between quiet and loud listening? On the first episode of the Radical Candor podcast season 3, Kim, Jason and Amy debate the merits of both loud and quiet listening, which Kim experienced firsthand while working with Steve Jobs and Tim Cook at Apple. Is quiet listening creepy? Is loud listening aggressive? Listen to the Radical Candor podcast to find out!
Listen to the episode:
Quiet vs. Loud Listening, an excerpt from Radical Candor
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, is the master of silence. Before I interviewed at Apple, a friend warned me that Tim tended to allow long silences and that I shouldn’t let it unnerve me or feel the need to fill them. Despite this warning, in our first interview, I reacted to a long period of silence by anxiously talking nonstop, and in the process inadvertently told him far more about a mistake I’d made than I had intended.
Following in Tim’s footsteps, one of my students in the Managing at Apple class said that he tried to make sure to spend at least ten minutes in every one-on-one meeting listening silently, without reacting in any way. He would keep his facial expression and body language totally neutral.
“What did you learn in that 10 minutes that you didn’t learn the other fifty?” I asked.
“I heard the things I didn’t want to hear,” my student said, validating Tim’s technique. “If I gave any reaction at all, people would often tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. I found that they were much more likely to say what they really thought— even if it wasn’t what I was hoping to hear—when I was careful not to show what I thought.”
There are real advantages to quiet listening, but it also has a downside. When you’re the boss and people don’t know what you think, they waste a lot of time trying to guess. Some will even use your name in vain— “Well, what the boss wants to do is X”— and then go on to describe what they want to do instead. And since nobody can be sure what you really think, they can sometimes get away with it. In addition, plenty of people are made very uncomfortable by silence, as the examples above demonstrate. It can feel like playing a high-risk poker game instead of having a Radically Candid conversation.
Some people feel a quiet listener is not listening at all but instead setting a trap: waiting for others to say the wrong thing so they can pounce. If you’re a quiet listener, then, you need to take steps to reassure those made uncomfortable by your style. Don’t be pointlessly inscrutable. To get others to say what they think, you need to say what you think sometimes, too.
If you want to be challenged, you need to be willing to challenge. The manager in my class was expressionless for only ten minutes of his 1:1s, not the full hour. If he’d been utterly expressionless the whole time, it would have been hard for people to trust him or to relate to him. Tim Cook wasn’t always silent either, of course. But because he was generally so quiet, people leaned forward to listen to what he said. And when he spoke, albeit very quietly, his thinking was always crystal clear.
Quiet listening clearly works for many managers, but I cannot pull it off. Luckily, there is another model.
If quiet listening involves being silent to give people room to talk, loud listening is about saying things intended to get a reaction out of them. This was the way Steve Jobs listened. He would put a strong point of view on the table and insist on a response. Why do I call this listening, instead of talking, or even yelling? Because Steve didn’t just challenge others; he insisted that they challenge him back.
Obviously, this approach works only when people feel confident enough to rise to the challenge. Just as some people are spooked by quiet listening, other people are offended by loud listening. If you are a loud listener, how do you deal with people who are either constitutionally unable to stand up to an aggressive boss or whose position is too marginal to allow them to feel secure, even if the larger culture welcomes this behavior? How do you listen to a person who has just started at the company and doesn’t feel established enough to take a high-profile stand? That person might know a good reason why you are wrong. And yet they won’t speak up.
If you have a loud listening style, you need to go to some lengths to build the confidence of those whom you’re making uncomfortable. And as people witness one another challenging the boss, they will grow to feel it’s safe to do so as well.
You don’t have to adopt Steve’s style to be a loud listener. Paul Saffo, an engineering professor at Stanford, describes a technique he calls “strong opinions, weakly held.” Saffo has made the point that expressing strong, some might say outrageous, positions with others is a good way to get to a better answer, or at least to have a more interesting conversation.
I love this approach. I’ve always found that saying what I think really clearly and then going to great lengths to encourage disagreement is a good way to listen. I tend to state my positions strongly, so I have had to learn to follow up with, “Please poke holes in this idea— I know it may be terrible. So tell me all the reasons we should not do that.”
Perhaps most important is to stick to the style that feels most natural to you. Many leadership books push for quiet listening. But if you’re a loud listener, it’s really hard to follow that advice. Attempting to behave in ways that feel deeply unnatural can make your team feel less comfortable with you rather than more so. Instead, try to strengthen your awareness of how your style makes your colleagues feel and work on improving that dynamic.
The Radical Candor Podcast Checklist
- Remember, listening builds relationships. Make sure your listening style is tangible. Don’t make people guess how you think or feel.
- Be aware of your listening style and don’t try to fight it as that can cause you to behave unnaturally.
- Listening is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice. Practice listening regularly.
- Don’t attempt to solve the problem. Just listen.
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The Radical Candor Podcast theme music was composed by Cliff Goldmacher. Order his book: The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering the Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.