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The Crew Coach: Why Yacht Captains Need to Listen to Crew

Alison Rentoul portrait 140

Q: Captain, 42:

“My new year’s resolution is to do something about my listening. I’ve been told all my life by friends, people I work with, my wife and even my teenage kids, that I don't listen.  

I’ve always been high-energy and solutions-focussed, and get frustrated when people witter on without getting to the point. The catalyst came at the end of last year when my first mate left because he said my inability to listen was doing his head in.

This has really rattled me as I considered him a friend, so I’ve come to the conclusion that if even he can’t work with me because of it, then I’m the one that has to do something to change. The thing is I’m not really sure exactly what I’m doing wrong a lot of the time, or what to do about it. How do I learn to listen better?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Wow. Hats off to you! Accepting we have to change a core element of our behaviour is one of the toughest things we ever have to do, and I am seriously impressed in you owning up to this and taking the first step to do something about it. It also sounds like a great new year’s resolution as it’s a lot easier to achieve than changing some of the other bad habits we often choose to try and tackle at this time of year!

The defining factor of strong leadership is how well you listen to those under your command. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to get this right, as working with someone who operates only on ‘transmit’ and never on ‘receive’ is at best, tiring – and at worst, utterly unbearable.










Here are some of the common reasons that cause people to be bad listeners:

• You don’t have enough time

• You think you already know the answer

• You’ve heard them say this before • The person is being dull as dishwater

• You don’t immediately see the point of the conversation

• You’re constantly distracted by other things

• You feel like you’re giving your power away when you listen to others

• What you have to say is more important or right and they are wrong

• You genuinely don’t care about the person talking Do any (or all) of these apply to you? 

The thing is, your crew won’t ever truly trust you until you show your trust in them… and one of the key ways to do this is by LISTENING to them. Being impatient with their attempts at conversation just makes them feel nervous, unappreciated and frustrated. So how do you do that?

Here are some practical ways you can quickly improve your listening skills and show people you are keen to hear what they have to say.

1. Encourage others to talk to you

This might sound blindingly obvious, but sometimes the best solutions are. Actually asking others questions and then listening to their responses (and asking further questions related to what they have said) shows you are listening, and that you are open to receiving input from others.

Bad listeners often spend the entire time the other person is speaking, thinking about what they are going to say next – which means they are not taking in what is being said to them and their following statement is often therefore unrelated to what has been said. This is a classic way to kill a conversation and make the other person feel unheard.

2. Listen to people even if you don’t like them

This is really common – allowing your personal feelings about someone to close your ears to their contributions can actually be very dangerous. If you tune them out you risk missing important information they could be trying to give you about something that could turn out to be a very big problem down the line.

3. Look at others when listening to them

This is a biggie. As much as possible (without being creepy!) look people in the eyes and hold their gaze as they speak to you. If this makes you feel uncomfortable you can nod, blink and glance up as you think about and register what they are saying, before returning your gaze to their eyes.

Especially if you are in a group of people or a busy environment, try not to be distracted by people walking past, or other people joining the group or the conversation.

Don’t look at your phone, your watch, or anything else that could be vying for your attention. Stay present and focus on the actual words they are saying: absorb them, register them, and think about what they mean. Nod and show with your body language you are really taking in their words.

4. Let people finish what they are saying

Busy people often fall into the trap of finishing other people’s sentences, or starting to talk before the other person has finished speaking. We’ve all done it from time to time, but some people do it ALL THE TIME, and usually these people are completely unaware they are even doing it. Try to catch yourself about to do this and resist the temptation to jump in.

Even if you think you know what they are going to say, and even if you’re right, the message you’re giving people when you do this is impatience, disrespect and even condescension as you are implying what they are saying is so predictable as to be not worth being said. Even if you only change this one listening habit you’ll make a huge impact!

5. Don’t draw the conversation back to yourself

Jumping in with statements like “ah yes, that reminds me of the time I…” just makes it seem like you think they are less important than you. Even if it does remind you of a time you did something, allow them their moment to shine and ask more questions about their subject, rather than chiming in with something that could sound like one-upmanship.

Learning to listen better takes practice. Start slow and don’t be surprised if you find yourself tuning out or jumping in mid-conversation a few times – new habits take practice to form. Awareness is key: the very fact that you have set the intention to improve means you are much more likely to succeed.

Tell the crew you know listening’s not your strong suit and you are trying to improve – this will no doubt be music to their ears and encourage them to be more patient and tolerant of you in the meantime.

As for your ex First Mate, if you can convince him you’re working on your listening and really want to improve this, if he doesn’t have another job yet, you might be able to lure him back. He’ll be the best person to tell you how you’re going, as he’ll have nothing to fear.

The best of luck to you – and please let me know how you get on!

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