Good Listening is Not Passive
Given the benefits of great listening, it is surprising that so few can do it well. For most, a lack of good listening skills is costly. In fact, listening is such a powerful skill that it can literally be the difference between life and death. Chris Voss, a former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, once asked, “Who has control in a conversation, the guy listening or the guy talking?” The answer: “The listener of course. That’s because the talker is revealing information,” explains Voss.
Why do so many sales professionals neglect to truly listen? There are several reasons.
- Many sales professionals feel they must justify their presence by articulating the value of their solution. They do so by spending more time talking than listening.
- Silence is uncomfortable, and many will choose to avoid this discomfort by talking when they could be learning more about the customer by listening.
- Talking feels empowering and therefore feeds our innate need for control in the high-stakes setting of a sales conversation.
The good news is that the benefits of strong listening skills are available to everyone. Yielding these benefits means understanding that being a great listener does not come naturally. Simply put, a great listener possesses one of the strongest competitive advantages without having to spare anything but a bit of time and attentiveness.
Here is how to do it.
4 Ways to Be a Better Listener in Sales Conversations
Following these tips will improve your listening skills, and subsequently, the outcomes of your sales conversations. Learning to listen gains you more information and build relationships which will lead to more closed deals.
Encourage the Speaker
If the speaker talks long enough without receiving a response, they begin to feel that they are talking to themselves. Therefore, it is important for the listener to occasionally encourage the speaker to continue. This dynamic presents a challenge: the listener must be quiet enough to let the speaker to talk, but vocal enough to elicit more of the other person’s thoughts. The challenge of striking this balance explains why so many consider good listening to be an art form.
Listeners can achieve the right balance by speaking only when the other person has left details unexplored. If the speaker offers only surface-level information, it is the listener’s job to seize the opportunity to go deeper. These are the moments when the listener should ask questions. The right kinds of questions carry names like “reflection questions,” “calibrated questions,” and “open-ended questions.” Though these names are different, they all describe the same thing: non-leading questions that ask the speaker to provide more detail.
The benefit here is that these questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no response. They also help the listener avoid the misstep of telling the other person what to think. “What’s the biggest challenge you face?” is an example of a good question. Listeners should use “how” and “what” questions that invite the speaker to reveal the kind of information that articulates needs.
Engage in Mirroring
Mirroring is the tendency for a listener to mimic the speech, cadence, gestures, and even attitude of the person speaking. Mirroring often happens unconsciously. Good listeners, however, shift this behaviour from the unconscious to the conscious so that they can more fully connect with the speaker. Some term this the “chameleon effect.”
Mirroring puts the speaker at ease. As a result, they are more likely to volunteer information and become comfortable offering important details. Mirroring works because it signals to the speaker that the listener is empathetic. In fact, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology determined that “empathetic individuals exhibit the chameleon effect to a greater extent than do other people.” Additional research supports this finding. A 2011 study reported in the Wall Street Journal concluded that sales professionals who consciously engaged in mirroring were more successful than those who did not. Mirroring even has implications in negotiations: another study determined that mirroring led to an agreement more than two-thirds of the time, whereas those who ignored the practice of mirroring only reached an agreement 12.5% of the time.
While the research is conclusive, the effectiveness of mirroring seems clear even without the numbers for the simple reason that it is logical; mirroring is a way of proving to the listener that you are listening because one can only reflect the tone, gestures, attitude, and cadence of another if they are tuned into those signals.
Confirm Key Points
A listener can use questions to do more than encourage the speaker. The listener can also use questions to confirm the speaker’s key points. Seeking confirmation is important because even an attentive listener can misunderstand the message. This miscommunication often occurs when the speaker’s tone is misinterpreted. Additionally, the listener might become confused when the speaker articulates the contrasting perspective of another stakeholder.
To confirm the speaker’s message, the listener must summarise their understanding of what they have heard and ask the speaker if this interpretation is correct. This kind of participation is beneficial not only because it seeks clarity, but it also invites the speaker to say more. Even if the speaker answers yes to the confirmation question, they often take the opportunity to expand and elaborate. This dynamic is even helpful to the speaker because it helps them crystallise their thoughts.
A listener can ask confirmation questions at any time; however, they are most effective at the end of the conversation when the speaker has shared everything they have to offer. Effective confirmation questions often require some amount of note taking. The listener should record the key points in writing so that nothing is lost. These notes become the basis of the confirmation questions. The listener must be careful to find balance here. Excessive note taking risks losing the nuance of the speaker’s words. Too few notes can leave important points forgotten.
French writer Marcel Proust is often remembered for writing “n’allez pas trop vite,” or “don’t go too fast.” He was remarking that people appreciate more of what is around them when they take their time. This sentiment has relevance for sales professionals who are under constant pressure. The urge to move fast is ever-present, and the most valuable information is only learned when the customer feels they have the time to fully articulate their thoughts.
Good listeners stay mindful of how fast they talk. If they speed up, the speaker might feel obligated to do the same. Listeners must be constantly aware of their speed when asking questions. In the high-stakes setting of customer conversations, it is natural for most to default to a hurried pace. When the listener asks a question, they must become comfortable waiting while the speaker pauses to think of their response. Taking a slow pace communicates that the speaker has the listener’s undivided attention.
Finally, a slow pace creates a more relaxed setting. The result is an atmosphere that is informal without sacrificing professionalism. This approach is the easiest and most effective way to reduce the tension that pervades most selling scenarios.
We hear almost everything that is said to us, but we listen to very little of it. Unlike hearing, we are not born with the ability to truly listen; it is a skill we must develop and maintain. Becoming a truly great listener means creating an environment that encourages the speaker to say more. Listeners must demonstrate their constant attention by reflecting the tone and attitude of the speaker. As the speaker offers information, the listener must check that they have understood what has been said. Finally, it is the listener’s job to maintain a comfortable pace that allows room for in-depth conversation.