I’ve been listening to an audiotape program about listening. It makes the argument that you can increase your personal power by cultivating this often underappreciated skill.
I have mixed feelings about this concept. On the one hand, I know many accomplished people who don’t listen well. On the other hand, I cannot deny the good sense of the argument.
Skillful listening provides several irrefutable advantages: It makes you a better negotiator, a more effective manager, a more charming leader, and, in some cases, a more successful salesman.
A case in point: Several weeks ago, MN, BB and I had lunch with PG, a very successful direct-mail copywriter. PG, usually unapproachable, wanted to talk to us about collaborating on a few projects. We were very interested . . . until he started speaking.
He began by telling us all about us. I don’t know where he got his information, but it was mostly wrong and/or outdated. Then he spent some time telling us what we needed – once again, without any apparent idea about our real needs. Finally, he pitched several ideas about how to solve problems we didn’t have or address opportunities we had long ago taken advantage of.
He never asked us a single question – never even looked at our faces to try to discern whether his monologue was hitting a chord. He simply talked.
We came to the lunch 99% determined to do business with him. We left with the certain knowledge we wouldn’t. The sad thing is that he will probably never know why. He certainly won’t ask.
“Why,” you may be asking, “didn’t you stop him and correct his misunderstandings? Surely that would have redirected the conversation toward a more positive outcome.”
Actually, we tried to – subtly and carefully – several times. But he treated our comments like digressions. He’d make some perfunctory comment and go back to what he was saying. He was so caught up in his own presentation that he ignored our comments.
We could have been more assertive, but with each new misstatement we became less interested in correcting him. It was becoming increasingly clear that he was not someone we’d enjoy working with.
Here’s a small positive example of good listening: Yesterday, I negotiated the purchase of two very desirable oil paintings for me and a client of mine. The price quoted was $35,000. I had an argument ready – a good argument – for paying about $5,000 less. But instead of making it, I chose to listen. I said, “That price seems substantially too high. Tell me how you justify it.”
He gave me four reasons, two of which were solid and two of which were weak. I refuted the weak reasons with specifics. He was impressed, almost taken aback. He gave me a price of $29,500. I would have paid $32,000.
Making my case after I had listened to his gave me an advantage – one that probably saved me a couple grand.
The 3 Golden Rules of Listening
So the first and most important Golden Rule of Listening is to shut up and let the other person talk first. Do that, and you’ll be way ahead of the game. If you want to become a listening master, you might want to remember two more “advanced” listening rules:
- Listen on two levels: (1) to the literal content and (2) to the emotional story behind it.
- Summarize before you present your case. Restating the speaker’s thoughts and feelings ensures him that you understand him and makes him grateful and more open to your ideas. (Note: Be very careful not to devalue the speaker’s ideas or feelings by the words you choose to summarize them.)
Frankly, I sometimes find it difficult to follow this advice. When I enter into a discussion, I have usually been thinking about it for some time. In thinking about almost anything, I approach it from different points of view. That gives me the illusionary feeling that the conclusion I come to should be good not just for me but for the person to whom I’m speaking. That’s not always so.
Moreover, people sometimes just need to be heard. They want to tell you their story, and they want you to listen to it. If it involves a problem and you think you have “the solution,” you may be tempted to interrupt their story to offer it to them. Usually a bad idea.
Let them finish their sad tale. Then ask if they have a solution. You may be surprised at how frequently they do. Why did they bother to tell you? It may be as simple as the need for sympathy.
Nothing wrong with that, so long as the need doesn’t become neurotic. Constant whiners are impossible, unproductive, and draining. They should not be tolerated.
Are you a great listener? Here’s a clever way to find out: Ask someone who knows you. And listen to the answer.
I’ve been forcing myself to listen better. It is not natural for me, but each time I’ve managed to do it properly it has yielded better-than-expected results. I recommend it.