Listening: The Alex Ferguson Way

On 8th May 2013, Sir Alexander Ferguson stepped down as manager of the football club Manchester United. The sun set on an illustrious 57-year career in football. Of them, seventeen were as a player, and thirty nine as a manager. In those thirty nine years, Ferguson won forty nine trophies. No surprises then, that he is regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time.

Did Alex Ferguson listen to people? Yes. Did he need to?

In an analogue world, the typical answer would be “no”. Successful people know their ropes better than others. People should listen to them. They hang on to every word the successful folk utter. That’s why, the latter launch into monologues like they know everything. But Alex Ferguson listened. And he listened well.

Ferguson didn’t listen to people despite being successful. He was successful because he listened to people. He attributes a large part of his problem solving abilities, communication skills, and success to listening.

“It always pays to listen to others. It’s like enrolling in a continuous, lifelong free education, with the added benefit that there are no examinations and you can always discard useless comments.”

How did he benefit from listening?

Making A Pivotal Decision

After a game in 1992, Alex Ferguson did something unusual for him. He hung out with the players in the bath, listening to their analysis of the match. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were raving about French striker Eric Cantona, whom Leeds had signed. The comments planted a seed, which would soon lead to Manchester United signing Cantona.

Cantona came with a reputation of being unmanageable. As they bought him, Ferguson sought advice from French manager Gérard Houllier and French sports journalist Erik Bielderman – people he trusted. He also spoke to Michael Platini who encouraged the decision to buy him. Platini believed Cantona’s character was underestimated he and needed some understanding. They all offered tips to manage Cantona.

The decision to sign the French player proved pivotal – arguably for the whole decade. Before Cantona’s arrival, United scored four goals in six games. After his arrival, they scored fourteen in six.

Listening with His Eyes

Alex Ferguson didn’t just let his ears guide him. He placed equal emphasis on observation.

“For me there are two forms of observation: the first is on the detail and the second is on the big picture.”

A specific instance where observation made Ferguson a better team manager is narrated below.

More Powerful Practice Sessions

In 1969, Ferguson watched a practice session of the German football team. They practiced without goalkeepers, focussing on possession of the ball instead. In those days where managers stressed on long-distance running, this was unusual. It made an enormous impression on Ferguson.

As soon as he became coach at St Mirren, Ferguson started doing ‘boxes’. They would pit four players against two in confined space. As players’ skills improved, the boxes tightened. It helped with everything: awareness, angles, touch on the ball, and more. Eventually, players were able to play one-touch football.

Ferguson employed this technique for more than fifty years till his last training session at Manchester United.

Observation helped Ferguson gauge whether players had recovered from thigh injuries. It also let him appraise promising youth in the academy, examine the demeanor of players and coaches, absorb players’ moods, energy and habits, and more. Watching from the sidelines allowed him to see a lot more than when he was in the thick of things.

He observed and listened a lot, and spoke half as much.

How You Can Listen Better

Listening doesn’t just occur when someone speaks to you, or when you want to convince others about your point of view. It can occur at any time. Developing situational awareness makes you a powerful listener and observer. It makes people like Alex Ferguson and Mahendra Singh Dhoni who they are.

Some suggestions on developing the skills like these men are:

1. Be comfortable

The first step to effective listening and observation is personal comfort. If you feel out of sorts, or are consumed by a myriad of thoughts, your ability to be aware is impeded.

If the feeling of visiting a new venue unnerves you, reach there fifteen minutes before the scheduled time. Settle in; make yourself comfortable. If you feel the jitters when you are about to meet someone new, research them on the internet. You will feel better because you will know them even before the first meeting.

However, don’t be as comfortable as a man who has consumed a full bottle of Shiraz wine. A level of alertness is necessary to listen and observe effectively. This state of alertness is called Condition Yellow.

2. Condition Yellow

Brett McKay of Art of Manliness describes Condition Yellow as ‘relaxed alert’. You are not in a threatening environment, yet are observant. You soak in what happens around you. You pay total attention to the person speaking to you.

You don’t have to become Jason Bourne to be in Condition Yellow. Just take your eyes and ears away from your smartphone. Instead of zoning out, be present in the moment.

3. Eliminate Preconceived Notions

Ferguson is interested in what people say, but he wants to watch with his own eyes, free from others’ judgement.

If a talent scout told him that a player had a good left foot, it would be hard for him to forget that while observing the player in action himself. This could make him overlook another powerful quality, or more unpleasantly, ignore a fault.

Our biases and preconceived notions influence us more than we know. To let go of them, we have to approach situations and people with open mindsets. For instance, if an unhappy client calls a meeting, I will assume that we will get into an argument. This assumption fouls my mood beforehand. I might take offense to a harmless question she asks. Tensions rise. Over time, these tensions can drive a deep wedge in our professional relation.

On the other hand, if I go in with a free mindset, I adapt to the situation. If all I care about is a positive outcome (for the client and for me), tension can be diffused and we can move in the right direction faster.

Mahendra Dhoni goes into matches blank, free from preconceived notions. He doesn’t sit in bowler meetings. Instead, he observes how a batsman and the pitch behave on the specific day with an open mindset. He then shares insights with bowlers which are worth their weight in gold. Bowlers are better equipped to execute their plans.

4. Reduce Speech

listen to others quotes
In October 2012, Alex Ferguson taught his first class at Harvard Business School. There was no place to sit or stand in the audience. And he couldn’t help thinking that the quiet ones, who apparently were absorbing much more than their peers, would become the most successful.

Don’t be quiet because you want people to applaud your graciousness; because you gave them ‘opportunities to speak’. Become quiet to be present in the moment; to observe more than you ‘see’ and hear more than spoken words.

The most aware people are also the quietest. There is a reason we have two sets of ears and eyes, and one mouth. When we don’t use these body parts effectively, we miss half of what happens around us.

Alex Ferguson didn’t follow a complicated lifestyle as manager. He didn’t discover the Xth metal on the planet. He was disciplined. He identified what he was good at, and practiced it till it was in his bone marrow. And he was bloody good at listening (and observing).

Step up your game. Let your ears and eyes work harder, and give your mouth more rest. Listening and observing will help you improve emotionally and mentally. After that, financial improvement is just a matter of time.


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