How to Succeed in Business: Listen!
Sounds simple enough, yet most of us don't do a very good job at it. Here are 10 tactics to make sure you're paying attention to what others are saying.
Dear Annie: I'm starting my first job out of college, and it is in sales. A friend sent me your column on what makes a great salesperson ("Great Salespeople Aren't Born -- They Work At It"),
and I notice that a big part of succeeding in sales these days is being
a good listener. I am very outgoing and love to talk, and my friends
have told me that there are times when it seems I'm not really hearing
what other people are trying to say. I don't want this to become a
problem with clients. Can you suggest ways to improve my listening
skills? -- Chatterbox
Dear Chatterbox: There's an old
saying, attributed to Calvin Coolidge: "Nobody ever listened his way
out of a job." You're smart to focus on listening as a vital skill -- not
just in sales, but in any field. Jacqueline Whitmore, who runs a
coaching firm called the Protocol School of Palm Beach (http://www.etiquetteexpert.com), has written a new book called Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, $19.95). In it, she suggests 10 steps to better listening. See if these help:
- Ask pertinent questions. "When
you want to understand what someone is trying to say, ask clarifying
questions like, 'If I hear you correctly, you are saying (fill in the
blank)...Is that right?' " says Whitmore. Don't hesitate to ask for
specific details and examples if the person's point is still not clear.
Says Whitmore, "Questions are the hallmark of a good listener."
- Practice empathic listening. Quoting Stephen
Covey's observation that "most people do not listen with the intent to
understand; they listen with the intent to reply," Whitmore adds: "The
highest form of listening is when you strive to understand how the
speaker feels. You don't have to agree or even sympathize, but you can
better identify with what's being said if you use your emotions as well
as your intellect."
- Listen with more than just your ears. "Nodding
occasionally, making eye contact, taking notes, and being fully engaged
all demonstrate genuine concern for the person you're speaking with,"
notes Whitmore. "Watch his or her facial expressions, eye contact, and
hand gestures" to pick up on unspoken messages.
- Share personal stories. Telling a short anecdote
about something from your own life that's relevant to the discussion
helps to break the ice, and makes you seem "more approachable and
down-to-earth," Whitmore says. "Perhaps that's why our society is so
fascinated by reality television shows that feature celebrities. We
want to know that they're real people too."
- Paint a visual picture. Creating a visual image of
what the other person is saying, Whitmore says, "will help you follow
what's being said and remember it later on."
- Don't interrupt. Whitmore notes that many bright,
talented businesspeople interrupt or finish other people's sentences
without realizing it. Unless the building is on fire or some other
urgent need arises, let people finish what they're saying before you
- Pause before you reply. "Silence, the white space
of communication, has a commanding impact. It makes people wonder what
you're going to say next," notes Whitmore. So don't be afraid to leave
some "white spaces" in the conversation. As my dad always told me,
"Nobody ever learns anything while they're talking." And of course, a
couple of beats of quiet also give you time to consider carefully what
you're going to say before you come out with it, which is never a bad
- Eliminate distractions. Don't try to discuss an
important subject while either you or the other person is distracted by
other tasks. Suggest setting another time to talk, when both of you can
concentrate on the topic at hand.
- Speak with a purpose. "Have you noticed that some
of the world's most brilliant people speak only when they have
something important or profound to say?" asks Whitmore. "When these
people talk, we all listen. It's often what we don't say that makes a
greater impression on others than what we do say."
- Don't give unsolicited advice. "Some people may
appreciate your words of wisdom, but others will get defensive and
think you're trying to change them," says Whitmore. "One day a
colleague told me about some of her career frustrations and, after
hearing just a few sentences, I started giving her my advice. Later, I
learned that she was upset with me because I had missed the fact that
she really just wanted me to be a sounding board." Whitmore's wise
conclusion? "Sometimes it's better to give advice only when you're
being paid for it." Or at least, only when someone has specifically
asked for your opinion. I'd bet most of us, at one time or another,
have been on the receiving end of well-meaning advice that we then
proceeded to ignore -- thus ticking off the person who gave it to us,
which is even more irritating if the advice was unsolicited in the
first place. Who needs that?
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