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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.