Why Listening Is So Important

By Matt Cholerton Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I was talking to a sales executive about his method for narrowing in on what customers want. What new market is worth pursuing? How do you determine new stellar product features? We talked about dissecting the industry, examining competition, researching market demographics and the like, but he quickly pointed out how he really does it. He listens.

He listens to those who want to use the product, to customers and to those who have sold similar products before. We know good sales people are good at listening. Why aren’t we all?

Listening is hard. Most of us don’t do it well. In their book, Excellence in Business Communication, Thill and Bovee write, “Listening is a far more complex process than most people think. .. . most of us listen at or below a 25 percent efficiency rate, remember only about half of what’s said during a 10-minute conversation, and forget half of that within 48 hours.”

We can do better.

You might get new information about your product, customers, process, work environment, relationships, upcoming changes, etc.  An even more important byproduct is, as an employer or manager, listening creates an environment of respect and trust. Employees who feel listened to and respected are more engaged and more productive.

Be a better listener. To be a better listener, remind yourself throughout the day that listening is an active skill.  It is not something you just sit and do, passively. Concentrate. “Am I listening to this person?”  “What would be like if I was the one saying these things?” “How would I feel and why?” “Do I really understand what they are saying?”.

In conversation, when someone is talking we are thinking of what we will say next. Very quickly, we stop taking in information and start forming a response.  We think of a similar story to relay (to show we are listening) or we are reminded of a similar topic.  “Oh, this is a good time to ask them about the XYZ project,” you might think.  Meanwhile, we miss what is being communicated. This is a natural way we have learned to communicate. It takes practice to be able to undo this when its time to actively listen.

Be present with an open mind. We have a lot of information around us and unconsciously block details and assume links in order for the world to make more sense. This inhibits our listening. Be aware of the tendency to project your own experiences on others. Don’t assume you know the opinion of others. Don’t judge someone by the way they look, or the position they hold. I’m shocked by the number of times I think I know someone and think I know what they will say - when I’m quiet and actively listening I’m often surprised.

Paraphrase what you heard. This helps others feel heard and ensures you have all the important information and understand it accurately. When you can, recognize the feelings of the speaker, such as commenting on the thought that went into talking to you or the anger they feel. Ask open ended questions to get at the core issues and to create a venue for the speaker. Demonstrate your active listening with your body language - don’t glance at your phone! Eventually, you might even start to schedule extra time in your day to listen.

Listening equips you to make a better decision, helps better see intents and motivations and builds respect and trust. How do you actively listen and how has it improved your business?

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