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.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

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 (, 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:

  1. 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."

  2. 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."

  3. 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.

  4. 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."

  5. 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."

  6. 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 pipe up.

  7. 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 thing.

  8. 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.

  9. 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."

  10. 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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