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Listening: The Most Important – And Most Neglected – Communication Skill

This past Sunday, The New York Times Business Section contained an interesting interview with James J. Schiro, CEO of Zurich Financial Services. I had just completed most of this newsletter, so the first question and answer were perfectly timed:

Q. What is the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

A. It’s the ability to listen, and to make people understand that you are listening to them. Make   them feel that they are making a contribution.

This experienced and successful business leader knows that when we meet with clients, customers, and prospects, while it is tempting to tell them about ourselves, to entice them with who we are, who’s on our team, what the business is and what we have to offer, that’s exactly the wrong approach.

Instead of speaking, we should be listening. Clients and customers are feeling tapped out. They’re cutting people, salaries, budgets, 401Ks – you name it – and they simply cannot spend the way they did. Not just money, but time.  If they think you’re calling on them to pitch business, they don’t want to be bothered and your attempts to contact them will be ignored. But what they are in desperate need of right now, and will set aside time for, is a trusted advisor. This is a fantastic time to become that person.

An Unsurpassed Method of Building and Sustaining Relationships

I was working with a CEO client a couple of months ago and I asked him how business was going. He threw up his hands in frustration and said it wasn’t going well. Business was substantially down and the stock price was getting hammered. Then, he asked me what I was seeing. This was not a question about how business was for me, but, knowing that I work for a wide range of industries, it was about what I was seeing generally in the marketplace. At that moment, because I was listening carefully, I recognized my client was looking for some insights and advice. I seized the opportunity.

During our subsequent discussion, I asked questions and listened to his responses. I shared my impressions. We eventually got to where there was some pain that my expertise could alleviate and I freely shared my recommendations. I did not try to convert our talk into a contract. Instead, I asked directly and sincerely how I could help him. He responded by asking me for a favor, something I’d have to spend 2-3 uncompensated hours on. I was glad to do it because I knew it would solidify our relationship. I didn’t have to think twice.

Listening is NOT Hard Work!

Many people have the idea that listening is hard work, but that is untrue. Listening is relaxing and enjoyable. It’s a good break from speaking. It’s also tremendously rewarding because of the opportunities to learn. Listening to people is a marvelous way to find out things about them personally, about others in their universe, about their businesses, and, of course, their needs, which they may not always be able to articulate.

We’re so distracted, however, by all the “noise” around us, our minds racing, we’ve become terrible at the skill. The following may sound familiar:

  • When someone is speaking, are you planning your response?
  • Are you daydreaming, thinking about something else entirely?
  • Do you answer the phone or Blackberry or accept other interruptions?
  • Do you frequently interrupt the speaker?

And here’s my favorite:

  • Do you immediately forget the name of someone you’ve just been introduced to?

(Me, too.)

The above are examples of hearing, but not listening; information goes in one ear and out the other. They are also all common listening behaviors that are easy to change.

Great Listening Is Empathetic and Intent

One of the most fundamental techniques of listening is empathy. Empathy is a primary interpersonal skill in human moral development. It is the ability to identify with another’s situation, feelings, and motives, to imagine what the person is experiencing or has experienced. It requires a willingness to extend oneself emotionally by summoning feelings. Empathetic, intent listening delivers the following benefits:

  • Builds self-esteem in the person who is being listened to.
  • Encourages creative thinking.
  • Bolsters your ability to gather information.
  • Builds and nourishes relationships.
  • Leads to questioning and clarifying.
  • Heightens others’ regard of the listener.
  • Shows you care.
  • Increases your charisma.

Think about times someone has listened intently and empathetically to you – perhaps a boss, a friend, a doctor — and how satisfying it felt. The same thing will happen with your clients and customers when you start listening intently and empathetically to them.

Steps to Becoming A Trusted Advisor By Listening

While poor listening is easy to change, it is not a passive act. Some effort and technique must be applied. (And, if your product or service is not top-notch, it won’t matter how much you listen, so having technical expertise is key.) Here are some steps you can take right now to start being viewed as a trusted advisor and not just someone who is out to make another sale:

  • Ask your client or customer to share a meal, coffee or drink.  Then have a conversation.  Ask probing questions and listen carefully to the responses.
  • Give your full attention. Don’t answer the phone, Blackberry or accept other interruptions.
  • Show your attention with your body language and voice (uh-huh, I see, etc.).
  • Resist the urge to interrupt the customer except to ask for clarification or check for understanding (Let me be sure I understand you…).
  • Be self-disclosing (let something slip about yourself that’s not strictly necessary).
  • If your mind begins to wander, exercise discipline and bring it back. Ask your client to repeat anything you may have missed.
  • Don’t take notes. Instead, when you leave your client or customer, take a few minutes to jot down the most salient points he or she raised. It’s ok if you don’t remember absolutely everything and you’ll be surprised at what you do remember because you were (mostly) listening well.

[One important note: Online channels like email, IM, text, social media do not provide opportunities to use the above skills.]

Becoming an intent, empathetic listener takes practice, discipline and patience. I’m always working on it.  But you’ll find if you take the time now to listen to your clients and customers and act as their trusted advisor, they will learn to depend on and turn to you to help them grow their businesses. And, as the economy recovers, you will reap tremendous benefits.

Remember, it’s the YOU they buy.

Copyright 2009 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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