effective business listening skill strategy - attentive listening skills, talk listen focus and clarify
effective business listening skill strategy - attentive listening skills, talk listen focus and clarify
effective business listening skill strategy - attentive listening skills, talk listen focus and clarify

Part I: Strategies for Business Listeners

Listening Strategy and Skills

Your skill as a listener can make or break your success in leadership, teams, customer relationships, and negotiation.

Part I of the topic Listening Strategy and Skills is by businessLISTENING.com editor Bruce Wilson, a business coach for executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

>Click here for an overview of all of the sections in this topic.

The human brain is built for conversation, but we achieve better results when we think strategically about listening and make a few simple, deliberate choices that support our conversational goals.

Imagine yourself in a business conversation. Maybe you are the CEO of a Global 500 company meeting with your board of directors. Maybe you are a solo entrepreneur talking to your first big client about renewing your contract.

Whoever you are, whoever you talk with, the following steps can make you more effective in each conversation you have.

Step 1. Decide what your goals are for the conversation.

Step 2. Be aware of your options, and with your conversational goal in mind, deliberately choose whether to talk or to listen, to focus or clarify what you want to say, or to listen attentively.

Decide what your goals are for the conversation.

Skilled listeners think about their purposes for having a conversation and make their choices based upon those purposes. Valid business purposes for a conversation include:

To exchange information. In many conversations you will be talking about what someone needs, or is offering. You may also be trying to figure out whether someone else has complementary offerings or needs, for example, to figure out if one of you is a potential buyer and one a potential seller. Finally, part of the exchange of information is often about whether someone accurately understood what they heard.

To build working relationships. People who know and respect one another, and who have a good experience working together, often work together more effectively. Personal style can make an enormous difference. Developing and maintaining positive personal relationships can be one of the most important components of customer-supplier conversations, employer-employee conversations, networking conversations, team communication, and more.

To feel good. Having an enjoyable and/or productive conversation can make you feel valuable, respected, and even liked. As such, conversations can be a key component of having a good day or even a good job, and of being motivated and productive.

To make someone else feel good. Good conversations can have the same effect on others as they have on you. Whether or not you have a vested interest in someone's state of mind--such as a customer, co-worker, or supplier--you may find merit in giving someone this experience.

For every conversation, and for every choice you make in that conversation, remind yourself: my choices affect whether or not I best accomplish the purposes of this conversation.

Be aware of your choices.

At risk of stating the obvious, in conversations people generally take turns talking and listening. Effective listeners are fully conscious of making a decision each time they decide to talk or to let someone else talk. If you haven't already, you can develop this self-awareness and reap its benefits.

The following flow chart shows a series of choices that you face in conversation starting with the most basic: whether to talk or listen. Your mission is to identify, and support, your goals for having this particular conversation in the first place.

You talk.

Do you focus?

No. Say what comes to mind.

Yes. Take a moment to structure what you are going to say. Decide how much detail to go into. If you are going to say a lot, it will help both you and your listener(s) to briefly summarize what you plan to say and list your sub-points first. If you aren't certain what structure works best, try clarifying before you start.

Do you clarify?

No. Use your best guess about what's important to them and what they already know. (But beware of rambling and pedantry.)

Yes. Ask whether they want to hear what you want to say. (If someone starts looking uninterested or upset while you are talking, try clarifying.)

You listen.

Do you listen attentively?

Yes. Take steps to minimize distractions. Think and react, verbally and using body language, to help synchronize yourself with the person talking.

No. You can either...

...half listen, and think about or do something else at the same time, with the risk that you will offend them and/or miss part of what they are saying; or

...ask to reschedule the conversation to a better time for listening.

These choices repeat over and over as your conversation continues.

> Click here to open this flow chart in a new window.

As the above chart describes, when you are self-aware in a conversation, and thus conscious of making choices, there are three initial options to consider.

One: When to speak and when to listen (below). Will you speak or let someone else speak?

Two: Planning what to say when you speak--focusing and clarifying (below). If you speak, will you plan what you will say--by focusing or clarifying--to best serve the business purposes of the conversation? Or will you simply say whatever comes to mind at any given moment in the conversation?

Three: Attentive Listening (on the next page). If you decide to let someone else speak, will you listen actively, or let them talk without really paying attention to them?

Some people always know the right thing to say.

Natural talent? Not likely.

Actors, politicians, and other professional public speakers prepare carefully before getting up in front of a microphone. But for business people it isn't practical to prepare this carefully for most conversations.

Business people can learn to rely on listening to tune the frequency, adjust the volume, and change the beat of what they say to make it "the right thing" for their audience.

See the businessLISTENING.com section about resonance and primal leadership for more about this.

When to speak and when to listen.

Unless you are listening to someone who is giving a speech, custom dictates that you take turns (not necessarily equal turns) talking and listening.

There are a few rules of thumb when deciding whether to talk or listen.

Never assume you should talk more. Although it's counterintuitive to many people, in leadership, customer relationship building, negotiating, and virtually every other vital business function, skillful listening is often more valuable than talking.

Simply because you are the boss, or more experienced, it doesn't necessarily follow that your conversational goals will be best served if you talk more. For example, if you are trying to lead without micro-managing (for example, see the businessLISTENING.com section Leadership Models and Listening Skills), or trying to discover what a potential client's needs are in order to sell to them (for example, see the businessLISTENING.com section The Central Role of Listening in Selling For Service Providers), listening is the more powerful tool. So consider making listening your default choice in most situations.

Even in employment interviews, applicants often need to be good listeners in order to form relationships with their interviewers and to discover how best to structure what they are going to say during the limited amount of time they have to showcase their abilities. A job applicant who demonstrates all of the necessary qualifications and manages to make the interview more interesting for the interviewer is more likely to get the job.

You can ask. If you aren't sure whether to talk or listen, you can always ask them which they would prefer, whether they would like to talk or listen to something you are ready to say. (This is the subject of clarifying, below.)

Make an effort to share the floor. If you think you have been talking too much, you can make an effort to give them a turn by asking them a non-leading question, then listening attentively to their answer.

When the conversation lags, refocus. If they aren't talking, and you don't know what to say next, but your goals for the conversation haven't been reached yet, there are two safe ways to continue. First, you can simply ask the other person what else they want to say about the topic being discussed. Second, you can propose to talk more about a relevant topic, and ask them if they want to talk with you about it.

How confident should you be about what you are hearing?

Some years back I worked in the legal field and spent thousands of hours interviewing clients and witnesses, both friendly and hostile. Over time I learned the importance of listening to how a person speaks in order to judge how confident I should be about the accuracy of what they said.

People may whole-heartedly believe that what they say to you is true, even when they don't have much to go on. How confident are they about what they are saying? How well do they understand it? With encouragement, will they remember crucial details that they forgot, or that they didn't realize were important, or that they were trying to avoid mentioning unless you asked?

All of these questions can be answered in part by attentive listening to their tone of voice and body language as well as their words. Tuning into their presentation style and recognizing when it changes can allow you to understand more about what they are thinking.

Planning what to say when you speak--focusing and clarifying.

To be most effective, take a moment to plan before you speak. Have you a mental outline of what you are going to say, including the point you are going to make and any background you need to fill in? If not, you can ask for more time to think, or ask for your listener for information about their knowledge, interest level, or priorities.

Before you speak you may choose to focus what you are going to say, by using an appropriate structure and an appropriate level of detail. How much or how little do you need to say to accomplish the purposes of this conversation (for example, exchanging information, developing your relationship, building motivation)?

You may also decide to clarify what topics and background are important to your listeners before going ahead. It's worth remembering that people use the word "rambling" to describe someone who talks about things that aren't important, and the word "pedant" to describe someone who lectures them about something they already know. Also keep in mind that many people feel threatened or embarrassed if you assume that they know something that they don't.

Tip for people who worry about rambling: practice getting whatever you want to say said in 60 seconds or less. Practice this using a clock, a watch, or even an oven timer. Yes, some things might merit 2 and half minutes, or even an hour, but in general if someone is interested in what you say during your first 60 seconds they will ask a followup question, and then you can continue for another 60 seconds.

Example: Craig, a marketing executive, asks Jane, a database administrator, to go over a new system for analyzing customer trends with him. Unfortunately for Craig, Jane gets off topic and launches into a detailed description of the hardware requirements and options for a new database server she has been researching. Jane does this because she is going to ask for authorization to buy a new server. Craig, however, has already budgeted for a new server and needs no convincing on this point. Moreover, Craig feels embarrassed because he knows nothing about the technical details that Jane is describing, and gets annoyed at Jane. Craig begins reading his e-mail and surfing the web and continues this for the remainder of the meeting. Because Jane doesn't clarify or focus, Craig doesn't pay attention. The meeting runs long, some important factors are never discussed, and over time the relationship between Craig and Jane and their respective departments becomes tense and less cooperative.

Attentive Listening is the next section....

This section was written by Bruce Wilson, an executive coach, trainer, and facilitator who has helped individual business people and organizations across the U.S. to improve their leadership, customer relationships, and teamwork. For more information about his work, or to get in touch with him, visit WilsonStrategies.com.


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