Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal: Listening for intelligence

Even the most capable early-stage entrepreneurs winding through incubation can find cooperating and co-creating with co-founders, lead investors, strategic partners and early customers challenging. Often, the problem is that we simply don’t hear each other. We miss telling details of critical intelligence: needs and desires or inhibitors and motivators.

How do we transform the everyday act of listening into a strategic competence? Used by psychologists, sociologists, hostage negotiators, crisis mediators and investigators, “the ego busting art of listening,” as sociologist Richard Sennett calls it, requires empathy and an open mind, a “turning outward.”1  Withholding judgment, encouraging the speaker to continue expressing themselves, staying silent even when they pause, observing verbal and body language that contains affective cues and, once the speaker has finished, articulating an understanding of what they have said creates opportunities to connect with the speaker on an emotional level.

While these tips may seem easy to implement, gleaning critical facts and insights from active listening is actually very hard. Developing the critical skill calls for years of experience. Just ask any professional investigator, spy, diplomat or journalist.

Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal, award-winning newspaper correspondent and editor, was working as a reporter in the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer in April of 1980 when a mission ordered by President Jimmy Carter failed to free more than fifty US diplomats held hostage in Tehran by Iran’s radical Islamic government. Commanders aborted the mission after a helicopter and a troop transport plane collided in the desert on their way to the Iranian capital, resulting in the deaths of eight soldiers.

Rosey, who later rose through the ranks to become the paper’s executive editor in 1998, teamed up with another reporter to find out what went wrong. They spent months crisscrossing the country trying to identify and contact Air Force pilots, Marines and elite Delta Force commandos who had participated in the secret mission.

“Investigation takes patience. We would go to military gatherings, even hang out at bars in 29 Palms [the California town in the Mojave Desert where the Marine Corp’s training center is located],” Rosey, a six-time Pulitzer finalist who also worked at The New York Times, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, told me over dinner in San Francisco. “Most refused to talk. They told us to fuck off.”

But a few soldiers ultimately accepted to describe the chaotic scene at the desert landing strip. “A couple mentioned that they had a hard time hearing orders and chatter over their communications gear, but we figured that wasn’t so unusual given the circumstances,” explained Rosey, currently Executive Director of the not-for-profit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California. “We missed its significance. … Despite everyone’s best efforts, you don’t  always see or hear the telling detail,” he explained.

As a result, the experienced journalists missed an opportunity to break a story that would make headlines a few months later. A Senate investigation concluded that disparate, poorly interconnected communications systems linking fragmented fighting forces from multiple commands created confusion between the ill-fated pilots.2 The report led to the creation of the Special Operations branch as a united and cohesive rapid-intervention fighting force, arguably the most significant organizational innovation by the US military in modern times.

These days, Rosey applies skills refined over several decades as a seasoned reporter and editor to incubating a new model of journalism. Since joining as its Executive Director in 2008, he has helped reinvigorate the Center for Investigative Reporting, started in 1977. “We have evolved into one of the transformational models [in journalism],” he told a TEDx audience in 2011 in San Francisco.3 “We’re distributing stories to very wide audiences on every platform the way they want to get it. Now the challenge is how do you sustain this?” For the past 9 years, he has been multiplying the Center’s revenue streams, making it progressively less reliant on donations like the $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant it received in 2016.

Sennett, R (2012), “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation”, Yale University Press, New Haven (CT), p. 14

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