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Three Ways to Practice Listening as a Business Skill

June 25th, 2015

Watching with your ears pays off in improved business relationships

When I lived in Latin America, frequent trips to government offices to keep my visa status updated meant a lot of bus travel. I learned to close my eyes as soon as I got into my seat. By being “asleep” I could avoid any unwanted attention I might cause by looking around. It also developed my listening skills. Watching with my ears taught me to observe my surroundings and still focus on information about my stop or connection.

This came in handy during an especially crowded second-class bus trip during Easter week. My seatmate was a woman traveling to market with a live chicken in her lap. I can still hear that chicken’s off-beat clucking as Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” played through scratchy speakers. Despite all those layers of distraction, I still managed to hear the driver announce my stop.

About forty-five percent of a typical business day is spent listening, so watching with your ears is not only a smart travel strategy. It’s also a valuable skill for business owners and salespeople. Here are three ways to practice watching with your ears to maximize the value of every business interaction.

Asking and Listening: A former colleague of mine kept a roll of duct tape on his desk. It was his reminder to ask questions, shut his mouth and listen. Listening starts with asking open-ended questions that begin with what, how, who or where. In a business negotiation, examples of open-ended questions might be: 

  • How would you describe your current (workflow/maintenance/customer service) process?
  • What types of issues have surfaced in your current process?
  • What impact have those issues had on your (customers/employees/partners)?

The key is to ask, and then listen without interrupting. Practicing this skill with a friend or colleague can help you to notice and modify your interruption tendencies.

Listening through Layers: Listening through layers is a technique that can help you to uncover underlying issues or motivations. Try listening through three primary layers: listen for facts first, then thoughts and beliefs, and then for feelings. Often you’ll discover that you or others have made assumptions at one or more of these layers. Listening through them helps to clarify what’s important to each person and help to identify the next steps you can take together. 

Taking Action after Listening: Listening is half of the process. Identifying the next steps to a common goal is the other half.  Asking additional, open-ended questions can be useful in reaching workable future steps, such as:

  • What would you think if…?
  • How does _______ sound?
  • What are the options?
  • Who can help with that?

It’s not always easy to step back from telling or interrupting. Perfecting your listening skills takes a little practice, but it’s worth the payoff in avoiding in tense negotiations and improving the quality of your business relationships.

Easy on the “I’s”

November 10th, 2009

Recently I attended a corporate meeting and in the dozens of conversations that took place over two days, I took some time to observe the participants. On the surface, they seemed to be having good conversations, with lots of jokes and loud laughter. But their subtexts revealed more. Often they interrupted each other in mid-sentence. Some people seemed not to be listening at all but rather prowling for the small pause that would allow them to take back the floor.  And most of what everyone had to say started with the word I.  They behaved like normal people – like most of us would in a similar situation. Intent on communicating, they never really saw one another’s points of view.

That meeting made me think about my first business trip to Japan.

I was in Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a strategic alliance. I was travelling with a Japanese-American consultant to my organization, who functioned as a liaison and translator. For our first night in Tokyo we stayed in the home of his cousin.  A single woman in her forties, Takayo was a realtor in Tokyo who spoke some English and had studied French.  My Japanese was limited to polite phrases that were useful in passing interactions but not so useful for a true conversation: comments about the weather, where I would be travelling, how long I’d been in Tokyo, yes I liked Japanese food.  We managed to speak a hybrid language of our own over dinner, a mix of deconstructed English with some French thrown in and a little Japanese here and there, spiced with unintentional humor. 

After dinner I reflected on our conversation. And as I thought about what Takayo had told me about herself and asked about me, I realized that rarely had she used the word “I” in speaking to me.  It was as if she had held up a mirror to our conversation.  Only instead of admiring herself in the mirror, she reflected back everything she said in terms of its relevance to me and what I had said. 

We were using the same words but we weren’t really speaking the same language. I was speaking I to You and she was speaking You to You. 

You to You communication is part of Japanese culture and it taught me an important lesson early in my career: relevance is a business essential, regardless of the culture.

Through her interaction with me, Takayo demonstrated that in forming business relationships – whether they are with partners, prospective customers or the Web 2.0 audience that influences perceptions of our brands – responding is more than expressing our own views. It’s listening first and then expressing our views in a way that reflects and incorporates the viewpoints of those on the receiving end.  That’s You to You.  And that’s as relevant in Texas or the digital world as it is in Tokyo.