Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.

Listen First, Then Listen More

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Listen First, Then Listen More”

Everyday we hear things, TV, people talking to us, but how much do we listen?

Sometimes, it’s quite easy to talk – if someone tells you about their recent holiday, sometimes it’s tempting to talk to them about your recent holiday the moment you get a chance. But that’s not always what you should do.

Lots of people, starved of good listeners, find actually actively being listened to a very powerful thing. You can gain respect, make friends,  simply by listening to people.


When I tried to do politics, and stood in the 2010 general election for the Pirate Party, we learnt this the hard way.

If you ever get involved in a political campaign in the UK, you’ll find that the best way of engaging with voters, is knocking on their door. This is kind of scary the first 2-300 times, but to some degree the fear subsides.

What we came to learn was that it was much easier, and much more effective to knock on people’s door and ask them what problems they had in the neighbourhood, than knock on the door and try and get them to vote Pirate.

A couple of weeks ago, I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which pretty much codifies, and expands upon what we learnt on the streets: people like being listened to.

During a council election campaign, there was this one council house that we knocked on, and asked if they had any problems with the council. At first they said “nope, we have no problems here”, and then “well there is just one thing” and showed us an uncollected recycling bin, and then “oh well there is one more thing”, and showed a half-smashed window, and another bit where the council hadn’t made a correct modification to accommodate one disabled resident, and a string of other things. When we got back to our base, we had huge wad of issues we knew we could help them with, and we knew their life stories.

In contrast, I remember a lovely lady, I once tried to persuade to vote for me. She’d lived in the area for ~30 years, and I’d lived there for ~2, and in the nicest possible way, she batted questions at me to try and get me to justify myself. I suspect I talked myself out of her vote, simply by answering honestly. It was around then, that I decided that trying to influence politics was less enjoyable than I’d hoped, even at the best of times.


My girlfriend once described me as an extroverted introvert, and I sort of agree:

When you first meet new people, sparing using your words, and encouraging them to do the talking can help you to understand where they’re coming from and how to help them relate to you.

It’s easier this way too – you don’t have to say much, and can get a feel for what they’re interested in, and how best to respond to them.

It can even help over email.


One theoretical problem I’ve often thought about is, “if you meet someone very well known, who you respect the work of, but have little to say to, what should you say?”  What should you say if you met Tom Cruise, or Katy Perry or David Beckham or someone?

It’s complicated, but, my feeling is that relying on pieces of wisdom like these can help:

“Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools speak because they have to say something.”

-Plato

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

-Abraham Lincoln


When it comes to customers, and business, encouraging customers to talk about things that they care about can make a great deal of difference. I like rock climbing, and I was looking over this customer’s website, and I noticed the person I was talking to was also a climber, so I asked them where they’d been recently. It was as if I’d opened a floodgate – suddenly they were recommending me places to go to develop my climbing, and suddenly it felt like we were communicating on a friend-to-friend basis, rather than a business-to-business.

Another memorable moment is once when I went to a customer site to work out how we could help them. Talking about the tech they were building, where they were, where they were going, what their challenges were made a real impression on them. I thought I was just sort of gathering information, somehow, by being interested and asking them questions about how they planned to do things, they were delighted to have someone to explain it to. They took me through these details, those plans – and by the time we left, I understood a great deal about their system. The customer was so happy, they broadcasted on social media about it, and still remembered it a few years afterwards.

I think it’s also relevant if someone has some criticism aimed at you, or something you’re in control of. Going and giving them your full attention, and saying “you’re absolutely right, this does sound serious – thanks for bringing it to my attention – I’d like you to tell me all about it”, can make someone feel a lot more valued, and pacified. Do that with enough passion, and it’s completely possible to turn their relationship with your business from frustration to love.


Listening is more difficult than it sounds, but you can learn to do it, and it makes people happy. :)

Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
Listen to the users. If they want chalk, let them draw.
The long and winding brook

Show Gratitude

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Show Gratitude”

This value is distinct, and yet very complimentary to yesterday’s value.

It took me until my late teens to realise many of the things I am grateful for, when after a series of turbulent times, the stars aligned for a moment, and things fell into place all at once, and suddenly there was a chance to consider where all the pieces of the recently assembled jigsaw had came from.

Since then, making an effort to go out of my way to thank people is something you may notice me do. I guess occasionally there are the times I’ve shouted about itto encourage other people to follow. Most of the time however, I’m more likely to say in private, or by email/letter, how much I appreciate someone’s efforts – often, it doesn’t feel like anyone else’s business.

I think showing gratitude is important – acknowledging sacrifices, support and encouragement from others is important, and it also reflects into a strong desire to pay it back/give back to the same community.

One of my favourite stories about paying it forward is a simple story about running of petrol. If you’ve not read it maybe take a look?

The nice thing about gratitude, is that it’s free. It doesn’t cost anything to profusely thank someone for their time, or their help showing you something, or the manner in which they did their job.

But the impact it can have, is much larger than anything that can be bought. Surprising your IT department with an email of thanks. Sending a family member a card for helping you get through a tough time. Thanking people always has a positive impact, and the more frequent, free and enthusiastic you are about expressing your gratitude for others, the more you’ll find things go the way you want them to go. :)


I’m also grateful for the luck and privileges I take for granted, but I feel that discussion is actually separate from what this value is trying to convey.

Star paths in Kyrgyzstan!

Do the right thing

This is a post from my My 20-day Zappos + Buffer Values Challenge

“Do the right thing”

This is quite a difficult value to blog about, because if you try to do the right thing, it’s possible you might not even know you’re doing it.

I guess the point to give you confidence that specifically in circumstances where there might be a conflict of interest, you should do the right thing.

In the context of an organisation, this might be a bit like something that happened this morning.

A cost-concious customer was explaining some new requirements and was interested in how we could help. It wasn’t something we could help with easily – they’d have to take out a year contract, when all they wanted was this thing. The customer mentioned that they other competitors had given them a price they couldn’t afford, and they were considering doing it in house.

At this point, some sales people would say that I should have push the services on them, even knowing that the costs were 10x what they could manage. Instead, I told them them upfront that we wouldn’t be able to do it, it’d be way too expensive, and they should do it inhouse if they had the ability to do so. At the end of the conversation, the customer thanked me for being direct with him – he was happy to have saved both of us time and energy faffing over things that wouldn’t work out.


One of the reasons that I dislike DRM is because, in the real world, DRM can cause 10 year old girls to cry – it feels like it catches out all the wrong people and so fails to do the right thing.


A desire for things to be done “right”, specifically in relation to laws that affect the way the internet works, is one of the reasons that I got involved in politics. Of course, “right” is subjective, but for me, supporting the future of the internet was a very compelling “right thing” to put myself behind – the one that drove me to stand for parliament, run an election campaign, and go into politics when sane people might choose not to!

Doing the right thing, is also what leads my support of mySociety – the charity behind lots of the best e-democracy sites – theyworkforyou, writetothem, fixmystreet.


When I found my parents didn’t understand really what their son did for a living, it seemed sort of natural for me to take a day of holiday, bring them into the office, and explain it all to them. They may not have been kickass sysadmins afterwards, but they knew what a client-server relationship was, and they understood web pages weren’t like TV.


Doing the right thing, is why several times, I’ve taken time to mentor young people – to give back to the community, and to pay forward the support I was given. In 2010, I remember taking a week out of my holiday allowance to mentor Young Rewired State 2010 (I guess I’d sort of helped co-ordinate some of the northern contingent of Young Rewired State 2009 so it was a natural progression?), in any case, whilst taking the time off work was definitely “the right thing”, I don’t really think about it like that. The friendships forged during that week have lasted a long time, and I expect will last decades longer – that in itself is worth it!


I think I’d go back to what I originally said – this value is used to give people confidence to do things for good, and not for evil – and to empower them to let them figure out what that means themselves. I like this. :)