The ‘Soft Skill’ That Yields Hard Results

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Sep 27, 2012

Listening, one of the four elements of great dialogue (probing, responding, and alignment are the others) is considered a soft skill, which is ironic considering that it is one of the hardest things you will ever do.

If I were to invite you to a two-day listening seminar, most of you would opt for a slow, painful death. However, nothing is gained by probing and qualifying unless we have first learned how to listen effectively. You see, the best sales people aren’t smooth talkers; they are smooth listeners. Think about it. How much can you learn from what you are saying? Not much. But everything the client or candidate says is potentially valuable.

The good news is that we can train ourselves to be good listeners. (Just ask any mother if she can discern her baby’s cry from others in a crowded nursery.) You can learn to tune in the important and tune out the extraneous. Think of how it feels when someone’s not listening to you. You feel ignored, unimportant. Instead of liking the other person, you think they’re rude or self-interested. Conversely, people who feel they are being heard are easier to deal with.

Let listening be an end in itself. Sometimes, simply hearing the client’s issue may not only enable you to find a solution, it may be the solution!

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey counted active listening as Habit #5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Experience has shown that understanding is at the foundation of all effective decisions, all winning strategic plans, and all productive collaborations. Yet significant evidence shows that many of us do not really understand what is going on around us because we do not possess active listening skills. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are listening to your spouse or colleagues relate something that is extremely important to them? While they are speaking, something comes to mind and you cannot wait for them to finish so you can tell your story. This is the point where you can still hear them, but you are no longer listening.

Active listening is the process of temporarily setting your world aside and concentrating on the other person’s message and meaning. Evaluations, decisions and reactions can come later. Following are some essential listening guidelines.

  • Listen without deciding. Be like a poll-taker asking questions impartially simply to get the information. Neither agree nor disagree. Show understanding by nodding or saying, “I see,” or “I get it.” A response of, “I know just how you feel” may seem empathetic but may also elicit an angry, “How could you possibly know how I feel?”
  • Use a neutral tone of voice. Not monotone or robotic, but casual, light, free from heavy emotional baggage. The same tone of voice you would use to ask, “Is it raining?” You are not judging the rain; you just want to know whether an umbrella is called for.
  • Avoid listening autobiographically. “Something just like that happened to me” ends the listening and sends the message that you want to tell your story instead.
  • Reframe to show understanding and to clarify. “So what you’re saying is . . .” “I think I just heard you say . . .is that right?”
  • Go through the doors that they open. The listener actually guides the conversation by choosing the next subject to ask about. For example, let’s say you are listening to a co-worker who has the following complaint: “Rob is always late with completing reference checks on candidates that I need at the end of our client interview process. He says it is because people in the office are constantly interrupting him.”
    • Door 1: Rob. “It sounds as though there might be an inefficient pattern here. What do you think could be done to help Rob?”
    • Door 2: The Client Interview Process. “Why is it that Rob has to wait until the end of the interview process to make a first round of reference checks?”
    • Door 3: Reference-check delegation. “Is there someone in addition to Rob who might be able to assist in getting the reference checks completed in a timely fashion?”
    • Door 4: The Interruptions. “It sounds as though Rob’s work area is very busy. What could be done to reduce his interruptions?”
    • There is also the universal door of the emotions the speaker is experiencing. “You sound really upset. What do you think could be done so you won’t feel that way anymore?”
  • Get closure. Stay until the end of the conversation. If you begin to listen and then don’t let the speaker finish everything they want to say, you frustrate them and lose their trust.
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