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Listen Up

“Listen Up”

To keep customers coming back, understand what makes them faithful in the first place.

Try this experiment: Say to a group of your employees, "Raise your hand if you think you’re a good listener." Then ask the folks who raised their hands, "What makes you a good listener?"

They may say:

  • I pay attention.
  • I’m interested in what others say.
  • People tell me I listen well, so I suppose I do.

You may find that even those employees who think of themselves as excellent listeners can’t describe what they actually do — or how they do it. Because they’ve never examined the process of listening, they treat it as something instinctive — a gift they luckily possess.

In truth, however, the best listeners practice and develop their skills over time. They aren’t born with great attention spans or exceptional powers of concentration; instead, they train themselves to capture more of what they hear.

Open Your Ears

Like many entrepreneurs who manage burst-out businesses, you may admit you could improve how you listen. But you’re so busy that you just don’t have the time, patience or discipline to sit still and listen to every word.

In short, you’d like to sharpen your listening skills. But you figure it’s a luxury you cannot afford. To sharpen how you listen, give silence its due. Follow these tips so that others speak up:

Play the "I’m waiting" game. Stop after you ask a question. Wait for a reply. If you don’t get a prompt answer, resist the urge to answer your own question, rephrase the question or ignore what you just asked and blab about another topic.

Rivet your focus. Staying silent won’t help if you’re rifling through papers, glancing at your Palm Pilot or doodling compulsively during a conversation.

Action: Maintain pleasant, consistent eye contact. Keep your hands empty and at your sides. As you listen, don’t bury your head in your palms, rub your eyes or fiddle with paper clips.

Strive to learn. Thirst for knowledge as you listen. If you strive to learn at least one specific fact or opinion from every dialogue, then you’ll limit your speaking and feel more comfortable keeping quiet.

Action: Just before starting a conversation, think, "Teach me." Remind yourself you’re there to learn, not to lecture or hold court.

Say What?

The ultimate test of listening is when you hear what you don’t want to hear. Beware of blocking out bad news or distorting it to fit your preconceived notions. Instead, focus on the content. Paraphrase the message to ensure you’ve absorbed it.

Listen for understanding, not agreement. Make room for differences in opinion or outlook. Train yourself to listen without constant smiling or frowning; strike a neutral but interested facial expression, and show you’re ready and willing to take it all in.

To follow a rambling motor mouth or a dull speaker, generate a mental list of the points you hear. Create one-word labels to remind yourself of what the person says.

Mum’s the Word

You try your hardest to listen for understanding, but you still interrupt whenever someone says something that you deem incorrect. Sound familiar? Resist this urge and wait for the speaker to finish. Here are two reasons why:

  1. You rethink assumptions. Making a snap judgment that someone is wrong can stifle healthy debate. It’s better to test your assumptions by listening patiently and fairly assessing the speaker’s views and proposals.
  2. You learn more. Let speakers continue uninterrupted, even if you’re sure they’re mistaken. They may reveal their fears, hopes and biases in ways that you would otherwise miss.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).