Small Business
Profit by 'Zen listening'
November 20, 2000: 12:29 p.m. ET

Focus your full attention on others and become more effective at work
By Staff Writer Steve Bills
graphic graphic
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - When the irate customer is nose to nose with you, red in the face and shouting about your rotten service, you may have difficulty remembering the observation of Rebecca Shafir: "They really want to help you make the business better."

Your natural response is to become angry and defensive yourself, either shouting back at the customer or pointing to your established company policies for what happened. This probably is not your most effective move.

To do your best job of solving this customer's problem, your first step should be to quiet your own internal noise, the counterarguments and anger, and listen -- really listen -- to what the person is telling you. Shafir calls this "getting into their movie."

But this high-decibel environment may not be the best place to start. Shafir -- a speech pathologist and speaker, student of Eastern religion and author of the new book, "The Zen of Listening" -- suggests you begin with a glass of orange juice.

The power of 'mindfulness'

Now, you have had orange juice before. But it usually is a mindless experience, a quick slug of Vitamin C in the morning while you scan the morning paper, listen to the drone of TV news headlines and prepare to dash to work. Today, Shafir says, you can experience orange juice in a new way.

graphicPay attention. Watch the liquid splash into the cup and feel the weight of the glass in your hand. "Smell the citrus perfume," she said. Focus on the flavor of the drink, and feel the texture of the beverage in your mouth. Consider the labor that brought this experience from some grove of trees to your kitchen table. Drink.

This experience constitutes a "mindfulness minute," in Shafir's phrase. "For 60 seconds, you were locked into the present," with your attention focused entirely on what you were doing, she said. "You calm down your internal distractions, your internal noise."

That simple, clear-minded focus is a skill you can learn. To go the full Zen route, you would need to take 20 minutes twice a day to meditate, but without going that far, you can take "mindfulness minutes" throughout the day, laying aside distractions while walking the dog or even washing dishes to immerse yourself fully in the activity at hand.

"You can make it a part of your life when you begin to see the effects," Shafir said. "You don't have to think about doing it. It kind of kicks in after a while."

'Getting into their movie'

Now, about that red-faced customer: "Getting into their movie" means first quieting your own mind, then bringing your attention fully on the person's words, tone of voice, facial expression, body language -- "get the whole message," she said. "Make the person feel respected."

Then you can hear the unstated message behind the loud complaint: "I'm willing to stick it out with you. I'm giving you some information that you need to know," she said. "We love difficult customers."

  The greed for speed, our hyperactive scheduling, is taking us down the wrong road. We've got to get back into the present.  
  Rebecca Shafir
author, 'The Zen of Listening'
Shafir urges you to listen to yourself as well, as you respond. In fact, as you get the knack of this, you will improve your ability to respond appropriately to help the customer resolve the problem, without increasing the level of hostility -- or the volume of the conversation.

"Being a good listener enhances your competency and sense of self-esteem," Shafir said, not only boosting your confidence but also your ability to respond effectively.

She has seen the effects, she said, in exchanges with patients in her speech pathology practice in Burlington, Mass. Indeed, it was her professional practice that first gave her the idea that by listening more acutely to her patients, and by communicating more effectively to them in turn, she was able to improve the results of treatment.

Take time now, save time later

The same thing applies in routine exchanges in the office setting. Shafir cites the example of a manager hurriedly giving a handwritten letter to an assistant for typing, then having to spend more time later in correcting the misunderstandings and redoing the work than it would have taken to spend a few additional moments in mindful conversation to get it right the first time.

"The greed for speed, our hyperactive scheduling is taking us down the wrong road," she said. "We've got to get back into the present."

Although there are specific techniques you can apply, Shafir warns that a mechanical approach to listening misses the point. "I hate to call it techniques and tricks," she said. "It's a mindset."

She even suggests that mindful listening can make you almost psychic. "When you lock in, you get more information than you ever thought possible," she said. "It's as close as you can come to reading someone's mind."

Even if you never reach satori, you can enhance your performance in a wide range of activities, Shafir asserted: "You'll never go back to drinking orange juice the same way. You wouldn't want to." graphic


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