Home » Full Transcript: William Ury on The Power of Listening at TEDxSanDiego

Full Transcript: William Ury on The Power of Listening at TEDxSanDiego

William Ury

William Ury, author of Getting to Yes with Yourself, is one of the world’s leading experts on negotiation and mediation. Here is the full transcript of Mr. Ury’s TEDx Talk: ‘The Power of Listening’ at TEDxSanDiego conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The power of listening by William Ury at TEDxSanDiego


There is an ancient and well-known philosophical riddle that asks: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” A scientific view is that, while a tree will make waves in the air, to make a sound, it takes an ear to hear it.

So my question is, if a person speaks – if they offer a TED Talk, for example, and no one listens, is that really communication? Listening, I believe, is the missing half of communication. Absolutely necessary but often overlooked. We live in an age we call the Age of Communication. And certainly with a lot of cell phones, texts, tweets, and emails, there is a lot of talking going on.

But how much listening can there really be with so much interruption and distraction? So my passion for the last 30 years has been helping people get to “yes” in very tough negotiations. From family feuds to boardroom battles, from labor strikes to civil wars. And I hear a lot of talking, but I don’t hear a lot of real listening. We think of negotiation as being about talking. But in fact, it’s really about listening. If you study the behavior of successful negotiators, you find that they listen far more than they talk. After all, we’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should listen twice as much, at least, as we speak.

So Why listen? Why is it so important? Let me tell you a story. Some years ago, I was in the country of Venezuela serving as a third party between the government and the political opposition at a time of intense conflict, with a lot of people fearing a civil war. My colleague, Francisco Diaz and I had an appointment with the President, Hugo Chavez, at 9:00 PM at the Presidential Palace.

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Finally, at midnight, we were ushered in to see the President who had his entire cabinet arrayed behind him. He asked me: “So, Ury, what do you think of the situation going on here?”

I said: “Mr. President, I’ve been talking to your ministers here, and to the opposition. And I think you’re making some progress.”

“Progress? What do you mean progress?” he shouted. “You’re blind. You’re not seeing all the dirty tricks those traitors are up to.” And he leaned in very close to my face and proceeded to shout. What was I going to do?

Part of me felt like defending myself, naturally. But what good would it do for me to get into an argument with the President of Venezuela? How would that advance peace? So I just listened. I gave him my full attention. I listened to where he was coming from. And President Chavez was known – he was famous for making eight hour speeches.

But after 30 minutes of me just nodding and listening, I saw his shoulders slowly sag. And he said to me in a very weary tone of voice: “So, Ury, what should I do?” That’s the sound of a human mind opening to listen.

So I said: “Mr. President, it’s almost Christmas. The country needs a break. Last year, all the festivities were canceled because of the conflict. Why not propose a truce this time so that people can enjoy the holidays with their families? And after that, maybe everybody will be in a better mood to listen.”

He said: “That’s a great idea. I’m going to announce that in my next speech.” His mood has completely shifted. How? Through the simple power of listening. Because I listened to him, he was more ready to listen to me.

So there are at least three important reasons why it’s important to listen in any negotiation or conflict. The first is that it helps us understand the other side. Negotiation, after all, is an exercise in influence. You’re trying to change someone else’s mind. How can you possibly change someone else’s mind if you don’t know where their mind is? Listening is key.

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The second reason, just as important, is it helps us connect with the other human being. It helps us build rapport. It builds trust. It shows we care. After all, everybody wants to be heard.

And the third [reason] is, as with President Chavez, it makes it more likely that the other person is going to listen to us. It helps us get to “yes.”

In short, listening may be the cheapest concession we can make in a negotiation. It costs us nothing, and it brings huge benefits. Listening may be the golden key that opens the door to human relationship.

So how do we listen? Well it turns out that we often take listening for granted as something easy and natural. But in fact, at least in my experience, real genuine listening is something that needs to be learned and practiced every day. In ordinary listening, we’re hearing the words. And we’re often thinking, “Where do I agree? Where do I disagree? What am I going to say in response?” In other words, the focus is on us. In genuine listening, however, the spotlight moves to the other person. We put ourselves in their shoes. We tune into their wavelength. We listen from within their frame of reference, not just ours. And that’s not easy.

In genuine listening, we listen not just for what’s being said, but for what’s not being said. We listen not just to the words, but to what’s behind the words. We listen for the underlying emotions, and feelings, the underlying needs, what that person really needs or wants. Let me give you an example.

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to ask a Brazilian entrepreneur by the name of Abilio Diniz, to help him because he was trapped in a titanic legal dispute with his French business partner over the control of Brazil’s largest retailer. The Financial Times called it perhaps the biggest cross-continental boardroom showdown in recent history. It had gone on for two and a half years, and it was immensely costly and stressful, not only to both parties but to their families and the 150,000 employees of the company.

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