Discover your Listening Villain
Apple Award Winning Podcast
004 Jessica Watson – Around the world solo sailor explains how she listened to her boat to understand changes in the ocean and weather conditions

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I am excited to have Jessica Watson on today’s show. Jessica became the youngest person to sail solo nonstop around the world. She was named Young Australian of the year in 2011 and received an OAM (Order of Australia Medal). She is co-founder of the marine startup Deckee and Youth Ambassador for The United Nations World Food Programme. She is currently working on her MBA and her second book, a novel published by Hachette.

While Jessica was on her solo trip sailing around the world, she learned to sail with her ears as she listened to her boat to understand changes in the ocean and with weather conditions. She takes us on an amazing journey of how she sailed with her ears, and how she uses her deeper listening skills to conduct television interviews. She talks about the power of silence and not interrupting while listening. All in an effort to help people and groups listen to each other.

Today’s Topics:

  • How Jessica broke the news to her family about sailing solo around the world.
  • Jessica kept focus using small goals and different milestones along the way.
  • How Jessica sailed by her ears by listening to the sound of the water.
  • There is constant noise from the boat and the roar of the waves.
  • A noise that you are not used to can signal that something is wrong.
  • How amazing it was for Jessica to have such amazing alone time.
  • The role of listening when sailing and communicating with boat crews.
  • The importance of letting others express their thoughts and feelings.
  • How listening is a practice, discipline and a process.
  • The power of listening, body language, and silence when interviewing people.

Transcript

Episode 04: Deep Listening with Jessica Watson

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

Jessica Watson: 

You’re so utterly in tune with the noises of the boat, you know. One tiny little noise that isn’t what you’re used to can signal that something’s wrong, or that you are sailing slightly in the wrong direction, that your steering equipment’s not guiding you in the right way, so you really do become in tune to that.

Oscar Trimboli: 

On this episode of “Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words”, we speak to Jess Watson, round the world sailor. She takes us through an amazing journey, and explains that all that time on the ocean, she learned to listen to her vessel. She learned to sail by her ears, and that helped her to become a much better listener.

We go beyond the ocean with Jess, and we understand how she struggles with listening while she’s interviewing people for television stations, and highlights that, maybe Jess is an interrupting listener, but she reinforces the power of silence and talks about how powerful silence is in helping people and groups to listen to each other.

As we discover what it’s like to listen to yourself and others in the middle of the ocean. Welcome, Jessica!

Jessica Watson: 

Thank you very much for having me.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I’m always curious about people’s stories and where they grew up and stuff their families did together and parents and siblings and what their dinner table kind of conversations might sound like. Tell us a bit of your story, Jess.

Jessica Watson: 

I’d certainly loved dinner-time stories and I think they were a big part of my childhood. I had a pretty big family, there were four of us kids and mum and dad, growing up in Queensland. Mum particularly read me a lot of books. I’m very dyslexic, so trying to help me out there, but probably didn’t realise the damage they were doing at the time to put these ideas in the back of my head and set me up to believe that I really could do anything I wanted to. I probably took that a bit further than they really maybe intended.

Oscar Trimboli: 

In those dinner table conversations where the bait was encouraged and all of that, was there one that really stood out for you?

Jessica Watson:

Look, I’m not sure if this one was exactly over dinner but it was a sort of a very serious family discussion that we were having when I first told, rather than asked, mum and dad that I wanted to sail around the world by myself. And yeah, my sister prodded me to tell, because I’d told her what I wanted to do and was incredibly nerve wracking to actually say it, because this was something I was already completely set on and to say it out loud was very… it was intimidating. I think there was a fair bit of a shock. I think I was even crying at the time, but it was a fair bit of shock for mum and dad.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What role did listening play, do you think on your parents’ part in that conversation?

Jessica Watson: 

Probably the way that I told them was more important than what I was telling them, because you know if your kid comes along and says, “Hey I’m going to sail around the world”, you probably would kinda go, “Oh yeah, sure, and you know next week you’ll be wanting to go to the moon.” Because I was crying and because I was so serious about this and because my sister had said, “Jessica’s got something important to tell you.” The whole, everything set up for them to believe that I really was serious about this. This wasn’t just a fleeting dream that was gonna pass.

Oscar Trimboli: 

They could have dismissed it at that stage but they obviously listened. How did they do that and encourage you from that point?

Jessica Watson: 

I don’t think because I was clearly so… it meant so much to me already that and they could see that from listening to me, I don’t think they could dismiss it. That would’ve been, they would’ve seen, that would have been quite hurtful to me. In a way, I always joke that was their opportunity to squish it, they should’ve dismissed it at that point, because it just build from there, and they listened to me continue talking about it and realised it more and more it had gone to the point where it would’ve utterly destroyed me to try and stop me doing this, because I was utterly obsessed. It was my life.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Well, let’s pick up the story. You were at the dinner table. You were twelve years old. What happened next?

Jessica Watson: 

Well, next was years and years of working towards the trip. In the early days, that was kind of gaining experience and doing as much sailing as I could off-shore, so survival courses, first aid, navigation courses, learning to navigate by the stars, really meeting a lot of incredible people, mentors, advisors along the way. Then, the logistics, you know?

Finding the support, the boat, the months and months of work refitting that boat. Going and hitting a ship before I left, on a training voyage, fixing up that damage, dealing with the media criticism. The voyage itself was kind of a relief to start with, to finally escape all of that. You know, I had a lot of fun with the voyage. It’s easy to downplay the challenges now that it’s been seven years, but one of things I am proud of is the fact I had fun with it as well.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You set sail and I’m curious how you stayed focused out there in the ocean over extended periods of time.

Jessica Watson: 

Well, you don’t have a choice. It’s easy to stay focused and continue. Not give up when you really don’t have any other choice, so you’re out there completely by yourself in a position where you might be weeks away from help should you need it or kind of want to give up. It’s very easy to keep going when really, that’s your only option. There were obviously different periods when I went through different challenges mentally, when you knew the first part of the trip was likely to be very hard as you are adjusting to being by yourself and just not having that human contact.

I’d sort of set myself up to expect the first month really to be really quite horrible. And was quite pleasantly surprised when I found that it wasn’t so tough, but yeah, the smaller goals was probably how I kept myself focused. It was the different oceans, the different milestones along the way that I had to focus on those smaller parts.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Thinking about that time, one of the things you would have got to listen to was the ocean.

Jessica Watson: 

Yes, yeah, absolutely. The way I sailed around the world meant that I didn’t see land very often. It was only really, yeah, absolutely. The way I sailed around the world meant that I didn’t see land very often. It was only really a handful of times. I was out there on a whole lot of very often on a grey, empty ocean. Not seeing a single other thing and not really having anything else there, so you really notice the detail of the ocean and the sounds obviously.

I often do talk about the fact that I sailed the boat by my ears, because when you’re sleeping, you know the smallest change, the smallest noise, does wake you. I know a lot incredible sailors who have those amazing ability to read the clouds, and I’m not sure if I was particularly good at that but one thing I really did notice was the way the water sounded. After or approaching a storm, you could hear the way the water moved. It was different, you gotta sense though what that meant after you’ve been out there for quite some months.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Wow, so you’ve sailed by listening. Did you notice any other sounds besides the sound of the ocean while you were out there?

Jessica Watson: 

I mean, it’s a bit of a misconception really that the ocean and the sailing is this really quiet peaceful thing to do, I think. There is actually an extraordinary amount of noise and it’s constant, very, very constant. It’s very rare out there that you actually get a perfectly still day where there is no movement, therefore no noise. You’ve constantly got this roar of the waves and the boat sailing through them, and it is those noises of the boat sailing as well that kind of hear the moving and the creaking and the slapping of the sails that are actually all happening.

It’s often when I’m at sea and when I come in from a voyage that it actually it really hits me that silence it’s yeah, I think that’s a bit misconception about the ocean that it’s quiet.

Oscar Trimboli:

Thinking about you are at one with the boat, almost. How did you notice the sounds of the boat evolve over time, and what were the different details you listened to during that time?

Jessica Watson: 

You’re so utterly in tune with the noises of the boat, you know… One tiny little noise that isn’t what you’re used to can signal that something is wrong, or that you are sailing slightly in the wrong direction. That you’re steering equipment’s not guiding so utterly in tune with the noises of the boat, you know… One tiny little noise that isn’t what you’re used to can signal that something is wrong, or that you are sailing slightly in the wrong direction. That you’re steering equipment’s not guiding you in the right way. You really do become in tune to that and it would wake me up and wake up at the slightest unusual noise that wasn’t meant to be there.

Obviously, personally as well, it is so rare and such an amazing opportunity to have that time to yourself. I obviously had a lot of contact with other people, but actually often found that contact is very helpful as it was at times as well, but also it was actually quite distracting and it got me out of this rhythm that I was in out there. At times, I actually found it quite difficult. People wanted to kind of constantly be talking to me and checking that I was okay.

Oscar Trimboli:

One of the things we work on in listening particularly when we’re in situations like telephone situations where we can’t see the other person. There’s two situations, there’s people you know and people you don’t know, so let’s talk about that when you were calling people you did know. To what extent were you trying to visualise their bodies and noticing the inclination in their voice?

Jessica Watson: 

Yeah, I suppose when you’ve got nothing else you have to rely on picking up a lot from the tone of their voice and when the times it was really tough out there. I had a sort of a boat manager, a project manager who, he would be the person I would call, because, I suppose when you’ve got nothing else you have to rely on picking up a lot from the tone of their voice and when the times it was really tough out there. I had a sort of a boat manager, a project manager who, he would be the person I would call, because obviously the last thing I needed at that point even though my mum and dad were very heavily involved, and my mum particularly is very capable of sort of dealing with an emergency situation, very calm and sensible.

The last thing I needed was the slightest bit of emotion to creep through at that point, and to just need to deal with what was going on, and that’s what happened. I think it was near Christmas and it wasn’t in the thick of a bad situation, but really the only time I think that my mum ever did let that bit of an emotion come down that line and I could just tell that she was going through a tough time and that was absolutely horrendous for me. Yeah, it’s not really something that I’ve talked about much, I only just told her recently. That I don’t even think she remembered that incident that tiny bit of emotion just, you know, I needed … it was hard.

Oscar Trimboli:

I would assume you’re dealing with people across the world that you don’t know as well be they coastguards or various other navigational authorities. How carefully did you have to listen in those situations?

Jessica Watson:

I didn’t speak to a huge amount of people I didn’t know, and in a way I was quite conscious of well, I kind of backed away from doing that, which maybe I’m kind of didn’t speak to a huge amount of people I didn’t know, and in a way I was quite conscious of well, I kind of backed away from doing that, which maybe I’m kind of just reflecting on now when I think about it and go, maybe because it was just a bit too hard. The work, used to do radio skids and things with strangers, but I didn’t really find myself wanting to do that.

Maybe because it is that bit harder and it was something I really did find on a couple of different radio calls that it was just too hard to understand and to make that connection. There were a couple of people though who I did talk to. There was an Indian circumnavigator, the first Indian to sail around the world by himself in the same area that I was for quite a time and we did chat and communicate quite a bit. I did really identify with him, maybe because we were in a similar situation so I could … that communication barrier was broken down a bit because we were the only people in the bottom of this ocean and did have that shared experience.

Oscar Trimboli:

That’s not where you stopped. You continued on and you’ve led crews on significant ocean voyages with young people on board. Tell us a bit about the role of listening as it relates to skippering a crew through ocean yachting series.

Jessica Watson: 

This is a really fascinating subject and I think one that kind of deserves more attention throughout sailing community. Really thinking about the way people communicate on boats. It’s something incredible when you see a professional crew do it. It’s so quiet and quick and efficient. I skippered, the youngest ever to compete in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. I was the skipper but very much working with much more experienced crew who were far better racing so only slightly older, mostly some of those who were more experienced were guys and the communication to try and get the dynamic working well on the boat, it was challenging. We had incredible coaches who put us through a lot of hard work, really trying to work how we could problem solve really quickly and effectively with this crew of 10 all getting an input.

Then, in those situations where communication has to be really efficient. You gotta feed your calls back from the front of the boat over the noise of wind and waves, so it has to be this effective, someone makes a call such as “made” and somebody can acknowledge that really effectively. It is when miscommunications happen that things go wrong, that sails end up in the water and that dangerous situations do kinda occur.

It can be absolutely be quite chaotic and it’s probably most people’s experience in sailing is that they go out with boat and they’re all yelling and screaming and it all sounds like madness and yeah, I’m really proud of how far we came as a team, because on the first days of training, that’s exactly what was going on in our boat. By the end it was absolutely not like that at all. You know, communication is kind of cut right back down to just the necessary and the important.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Yeah, we spent 55% of our day listening and yet only two percent of us have ever had any training in listening, so we get taught how to read and write and do math and all those things, but we don’t get taught how to listen and this podcast is helping to fill that gap. There’s full listening villains, that are out there, Jess. There’s the lost listener, the shrewd listener, the interrupting listener and the dramatic listener. Which one do you think you’re guilty of?

Jessica Watson: 

Look, I probably do tend to kind of try and summarise a bit much into maybe the shrewd listener. In fact, that was what my coach really identified when we were working with this youth crew during the Sydney Hobart campaign was that when we were having big brainstorming discussions off the water mainly, when you did have time to really flush things out, I would be tending to kind of try and get to the point a little bit too quickly. I wasn’t really letting them kind of play around with different things. Trying to summarise, trying to clarify.

Oscar Trimboli: 

I’m visualising you on the shore with this young crew and can you think of a situation where you kind of caught yourself and realised that you needed to let it go and realised what the potential that came out of that was?

Jessica Watson:

Yeah, I mean it was easy at the time, because it was my coach who was helping me identify these things. I suppose it was once or twice in particularly where I wasn’t letting people kind of express their feelings, and their thoughts and their opinions. Maybe it wasn’t so much that I was missing the important points. It was more that by not letting them actually express those things. They weren’t able to express their frustrations and really that’s probably what they needed in that situation and I have noticed that a lot working with other people in the years since then. I’m really conscious of not trying to rush to the point.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think the impact was for the crew when they were able to express all those things both on the water and off the water?

Jessica Watson: 

I suppose it was pretty powerful because we were a very different team, we were a very diverse team, deliberately chosen for that reason, so that was hard. It’s much easier to step on-board a boat with a bunch of like-minded people who have done exactly the same type of sailing and it all just works. We were in a harder position to start with but what happened and I think why we did ultimately quite well in the race was because we did have these very different opinions but it was only because we actually learned the right processes and learned to communicate and learned to listen to each other, that we were able to actually express our different opinions and right person was able to bring the right point forward to the right time that gave us that strength. Yeah. Listening kind of enabled the diversity that really made us strong.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Great example! I mean most people think listening is something you do at a point in time but it’s really a practise and a discipline and also talk to process. It’s all three of those things. You talked about a communication process that you’d set up. I think it’ll be valuable for the audience to understand that, cause a lot of them maybe listening and they’re in a work place but they don’t get to pick the teams they’re working with like you were deliberately diverse, and modern work places are you may be working with people who come from different backgrounds, you may be working with teams that are overseas and talk us through the process you mentioned earlier on about communication there.

Jessica Watson: 

Well, it was interesting because we had a lot of support from Deloitte. They were putting us through this, a bunch of teenagers through their very corporate programme and teaching us those things that were developed in an office setting. A lot of them were quite simple things like the problem-solving diagram, which is all about what’s the problem and then actually breaking it down and really getting all the information you need.

This was at a point where the team would all try and feedback their observations, so what’s the wind doing ahead, what’s the other boats doing, what’s happening on the boats? Feeding all of that information back so that was kind of gathering that listening part of that process and then you actually had to listen, synthesise and bring it all together and make the right decisions.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How does interviewing people change your perspective on listening?

Jessica Watson:

Yeah, having to interview people rather than be interviewed, which is the situation I’ve been in for many years is really exciting. It’s so much more interesting for me, but I was in a really big shock for me to realise that my way of listening is to stand there and go mm-hmm (affirmative), and “sure” and of course, I really hate that when it’s on camera.

You can’t be ruining their response with all this kind of feedback from myself to show, and especially when you’re interviewing people who are really a bit hesitant you know that are typical blocky bloke, who doesn’t necessarily want to talk about their feelings, which you’re desperately trying to understand. I had to really learn to use my body language to show how I’m actively listening and encourage them rather than using words to do that.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Is there an interview that changed because you noticed your body language and what was the result of that?

Jessica Watson:

I mean it’s all been a steep learning curve to… you know that these fantastic people have great stories to tell, but sometimes you just can’t get it out of them. Having to kind of play around with your body language and the way you’re interviewing to kind of get those stories out of them has been a really fantastic process and you know, a couple have been a key learning process like when the camera person has turned off the camera and said, “Jess, stop talking.” Their response is, you can’t be sitting here going, “Yes, yes, okay.” That’s ruining it. There’s been some pivotal moments like that.

Oscar Trimboli:

Based on that what’s the role of silence taught you as an interviewer?

Jessica Watson: 

Yes, silence is powerful. It’s also realising that sometimes silence is the right response, I suppose. I present to a lot of adults in a corporate environment. I’ve always found that when they are listening, they are sort of laughing along and maybe interacting a little bit more but then as soon as you’re in front of a school audience, specially the older kids, the only way you know you’re doing okay is if they’re awfully silent. Success and successful listening is kind of completely different then. They’re not going to engage as much, but if you could get them to listen then that’s just amazing.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Well, Jess, you’ve shared an amazing story. I’ll look forward to seeing what becomes of that in the future, maybe on the big screen even?

Jessica Watson: 

Yeah, yeah, we’ll see. It’s an amazing interesting process to see it, yeah, we’ll see. It’s an amazing interesting process to see it, the story kind of come together as a movie. Well, thank you very much. It’s been wonderful and I look forward to listening to so many other podcasts and brushing up on my listening skills a little as well.

Oscar Trimboli:

What an extraordinary peek into somebody’s amazing life. Only 22 years old and I feel Jess Watson has lived more life than I have. I couldn’t help but feel that she’s been on a journey already in learning how to listen. Did you hear when she talked about the role of listening completely both to the words and the feelings of her crew in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race when they were debriefing on land? I think it’s really important that when you listen, you’re not just listening to the words but you’re having the opportunity to hear the person completely, not just what they’re saying but how they’re saying it, and noticing how their body is positioned and their energy. I think Jess did a great job of that.

Thanks for listening to Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

 

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