Written by: Keith Rosen
Authentic, clear, collaborative communication is the conduit to greater success. Yet, if we know listening improves relationships, trust and results, then why are most problems and breakdowns attributed to poor, ineffective listening? Here’s how proactive listening can accelerate success and just maybe, even solve world peace.
Selling, as well as leadership, is the most advanced form of communication. It requires the utilization of all our senses. Many salespeople and managers feel that the greatest barriers to maximizing productivity and achieving greater results point to gaps in their product, service, process or people. This includes inferior products, services, resources, sales processes, CRM’s, closing techniques, technology, presentation tools, your sales cycle even a mediocre sales team. Others blame lackluster performance on poor training, coaching, support, a saturated market, competition, difficult customers, weak leads, and a limited, unqualified database of prospects to call.
However, with all of these reasons, whether factual or fabricated, consider that the foundation of successful communication, especially masterful selling and coaching, is based on how well you listen.
If we were to focus on sales, the ability to actively listen has been proven to dramatically improve trust and the capabilities of a professional salesperson. Ironically, proactive listening is the least developed skill that needs to be mastered. Okay, maybe not the epiphany you’re looking for yet, right? Nothing new and mind-blowing? Keep reading.
Were you formally trained to listen? Chances are, your answer is no. Very few of us were formally taught effective listening skills. Most of the time we believe listening is simply hearing the words coming out of someone’s mouth. However, if we know that effective listening makes a dramatic difference in the quality of our relationships and our life, why don’t we listen better?
Distraction Central – Information Overload and Social Media
To listen proactively, thoughtfully, respectfully and thoroughly requires concentration, hard work, patience, having to detach from your own agenda and suspend judgment of others, being present in the moment, maintaining objectivity, the ability to interpret people’s ideas and summarize them as well as identify nonverbal communication, such as body language. Listening is a complex process and a learned skill, requiring a conscious intellectual, physical and emotional effort.
Proactive listeners must also be adept at filtering out the “noise” in order to listen to what’s most important. Unfortunately, there are many variables that push back and prevent us from doing so. We have more distractions that sabotage our listening than ever before. Today more than ever, we are bombarded with information daily, especially from the news. With all the communication mediums at our disposal, whether on our phone, television, in print or online, we’re constantly being told what to do, what to try, how to think, even what to buy. While a valuable tool if leveraged correctly, social media, compounded with information overload and our inability to disconnect from technology, is the dominant distraction of our time, pulling us in various directions.
If You’re Not Present, You Can’t Listen
The greater cost here is, active listening happens in the present moment. Therefore, if you’re constantly being pulled into the future or back into the past, you cannot effectively listen! Soon, the ability to filter out the unnecessary noise and listen to what we need to hear becomes even more challenging, preventing us from listening to the messages that truly matter.
If you want more evidence of poor listening, just wait for your next team meeting, coaching conversation or a joint sales call with a peer, boss or one of your direct reports. There are many situations where a failure to actively listen can derail any conversation and prevent you from recognizing the clues and information that truly matters.
Are You a Passive, Active or PRO-Active Listener?
While you may have heard about the difference between passive and active listening, there’s actually three types of listening, as I describe here.
- Passive listening. Also known as assumptive listening, passive listening requires limited or no effort at all. Our ears naturally hear the “noise” that surrounds us. Distinguishing what to listen to and what to filter out is not one of the skills of a passive listener. There’s no mindful focus on how well you listen. Many of the things that a passive listener hears are rooted in assumptions. That is, they assume what will be said and what is being said, which are often based on past experiences.
The deeper cost here is, if you feel you already know what someone will say or if you believe you know the facts, people will respond and act based on what they perceive is true. They often start to cut others off during mid-sentence and stop asking the critical questions to validate whether their assumptions are even based in reality or just created in their own mind.
- Active listening. Active listeners recognize that this higher level of listening requires your conscious attention and a deeper focus on the message; what is said and what is not being said. Active listeners take into consideration people’s verbal and non-verbal communication, with a greater sensitivity regarding who they’re communicating with.
- Proactive listening. This is the evolution of active listening. Another way of describing this transformational listening is intentional listening. That is, you are present, focused and engaged with your audience so deeply that you are no longer listening to someone but you are are listening for key insights or opinions, information or cues that would subsequently trigger the right questions to ask that move the conversation forward to create new and greater possibilities. This encompasses, not only verbal and non-verbal communication but also written communication. Being a proactive listener is not just limited to working on your own listening skills but supporting and coaching others to do the same. This can also be achieved by observing how other people engage and communicate with others. Imagine how the quality of your conversations would exponentially improve!
While proactive listeners also focus on who the person is, they also pay close attention to the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’ They take the time to seek to understand the other person’s point of view before sharing their own. They listen with the intent to truly learn who the person is, their agenda and opinions, rather than listening with the intent just to reply with their own thoughts and agenda. They are hypersensitive to the importance of getting to the root cause of a challenge or the objectives and goals that are most important to to the other person.
Proactive listeners know how to leverage what they’ve heard. They have the ability to take what they learned and craft powerful, relevant follow up questions that move the conversation forward with greater clarity in order to create a new possibility or offer the support other people need. Proactive listeners are also adept at coaching their customers and know to focus more on who the person is rather than what they do. They know how essential it is to suspend judgment of others, keep assumptions at bay, and focus primarily on the other person’s agenda, before focusing on their own.
Finally, if not the most critical and often overlooked opportunity to create further clarity and alignment, proactive listeners are masters at the Art of Phraseology. That is, they suspend assumptions regarding the mutual interpretation of words. For example, the words, “success, stressed, overwhelmed, difficult, unhappy, sell value, qualify effectively, coaching,” and if selling, “wants a bigger discount, said it’s not a fit, the competition is offering a better deal and product,” often hold different meanings and definitions for each individual. The way you define success or a successful engagement or exemplary customer service is often very different from other’s definition. That’s why proactive listeners are always asking the critical questions others don’t. Here are a few examples.
- When you say, “the customer is pushing back,” can you get into more detail about that?
- I heard you say you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Can you share what you mean by that? Can you tell me about a specific situation where you felt this way?
- When you refer to trying to effectively juggle your priorities and tasks and keep all these balls in the air so they don’t fall through the cracks, how do you mean when you say juggle? What exactly are you trying to juggle? What would need to happen to ensure you no longer have the need to juggle and instead, have a clear path to follow that supports your priorities and moves you towards achieving your goals?
- When you say you want to build your brand, become more successful here and make more money, how do you mean specifically?
- What’s your definition of (coaching, observation, success, failure, stress, collaboration, difficult customer, assumptions, exemplary customer service, confidence, fear, etc.)?
- I hear that you expect a better degree of service and responsiveness to any requests or needs you have. What would that specifically look like for you? Can you share some specific examples?
The Cost of Passive Listening
Listening proactively and with intention improves the quality of relationships with customers, friends, co-workers, employees, supervisors and family members. Ineffective listening can damage relationships and deteriorate the trust that you have created, especially with your customers. The price of poor listening is quite often many lost selling opportunities.
It’s said that more than 65% percent of all problems existing between people and within businesses are a result of faulty communication. I’d suggest this number is even higher, considering the preferred medium of communication has shifted. Assuming this to be more efficient, think about how much more reliant we are on communicating via social media, email, text, instant messaging and many other communication platforms.
Suddenly, punctuation, grammar and general best practices for written communication become secondary, only to be replaced with short hand, reactionary responses, and often cryptic, erroneous messages one needs to hopefully decipher as intended. When reality finally sets in, a mile-long email thread with the intention to solve a simple problem costs you your precious and limited time, and creates nothing but more ambiguity, frustration and no measurable solution. Consequently, this creates the very barrier to unfiltered and effective listening that erodes the relationship. Finally, you or the other person pick up the phone and what took countless hours on email was resolved in a five-minute telephone conversation.
So, are you a proactive listener?
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