by Peter Marino
Interactive Listening Skills
Before directing our attention to listening skills, a few words are in order about the prefix ‘inter’ before the word ‘active.’ To my knowledge, I was the first to add the word ‘inter’ to active listening. I did so. After having come across too many books on listening that left the reader believing one party was the speaker, the other, the listener. Were listening one-sided, the one that starts out as the listener would not benefit much from listening. That becomes especially obvious in selling. Sooner or later in the sales conversation, the buying customer who starts out as a speaker must also become a listener. Because this book is mainly directed towards salespeople, you can understand why reciprocity is essential in the sales conversation, especially when the salesperson requires a response from the customer. As we will be reading in one of the chapters, every sales conversation has an opening, an uncovering of the customer’s needs, a supporting of the customer’s needs with personal features and benefits, and an asking for the customer’s buy-in. In between those four parts of a sale fall the following: The customer’s indifference, skepticism, misinformation, and drawbacks. Each of those objections requires its own strategy. Throughout this entire process, the salesperson requires the customer’s feedback. Unless the customer moves from being the speaker to becoming the listener, the salesperson’s chances of getting that feedback from the customer is slim to nonexistent. That is the reason why listening must be interactive.
What makes interactive listening a must for salespeople? The answer lies in one of the statements we find in one of Michael Nichol’s books, The Lost Art of Listening: “All human beings yearn to be listened to.” Michael Nichols did not write that all human beings yearn to listen. They don’t. The average adult listens at about 25 percent proficiency. The reason all human beings yearn to be listened to is based on the fact that their deep yearning be listened to is frustrated about seventy five percent of the time they find themselves in a conversation, business or otherwise. All human beings have a long history of being frustrated regarding their yearning to be listened to: frustrate by parents in their homes, by teachers in their schools, by their managers and coworkers in their places of work. No wonder customers yearn to be listened to by their salespeople more than anything else. Basing myself on my experience, salespeople do not rise above being more than twenty-five percent listeners.
My strong advice to CEO’s is to scrap most of the sales programs they have bought into, to contract with an expert on the skill of interactive listening, have that expert train and educate every member of the organization, including the CEO, in the listening skills. No further training and education is required to recognize a poor listener. I suppose the reason behind that truth lies in the quip, “Although I can’t lay an egg, I can tell when an egg is rotten.”
Of all the listening skills, none is more important than the skill of acknowledging the speaker’s feelings. All of us have had the experience of talking to someone who can repeat verbatim what we have said without having picked up on the feelings that lie in what we have said. Unless the other party acknowledges our feelings, that party has not been listening.
My own experience with salespeople is that most of them do not acknowledge their customer’s feelings.
One day while I was doing some sales coaching in a sleep shop, a middle-aged customer walked into the store and immediately told the salesperson he had bought all of his mattresses from that store. The salesperson smiled wryly, but didn’t say a word. The customer didn’t make a purchase. When the customer left, I asked the salesperson why he hadn’t acknowledged the customer.
“Acknowledged him for what?” the salesperson asked. “For having told you,” I replied, “he had purchased all his mattresses from your store.”
“Oh, that,” the salesperson replied, “Lots of customers tell you that. They’re simply looking for a discount.”
He waited a moment, and then added: “How would you have acknowledged that customer?” “By first thanking him,” I replied, “and then telling him that I was going to make sure I didn’t spoil that record.”
You probably noticed that the smile the salesperson gave the customer was a wry smile. It was an acknowledgment, all right, but a poor one. Nothing satisfies our yearning to be listened to as much as a genuine smile. To be genuine, all a smile has to do is to please the other party. In the situation we just noted, a wry smile wouldn’t have pleased the customer. In the proper situation, even a wry smile, or a simper, or a grin could have pleased the customer, provided the other party was looking for one of those smiles. For example, even a listener’s grin can be the very kind of smile the speaker is looking for, provided the speaker is inviting a grin. The one speaking is always the judge.
On another occasion, just before the sales manager and I went on the sales floor to monitor several of his salespeople, I told him he would soon find that not even one of the salespeople would acknowledge any of the customers’ feelings. The monitoring concluded, he exclaimed: “I am shocked! Not one of the salespeople acknowledged the feelings of their customers even once.”
To be effective, an acknowledgment must be specific. Words like, “I understand,” and, “I see,” and, “You betcha,” are fine provided they are interspersed with specific acknowledgments that pick up on the very emotion lying in the speaker’s words. In short, to be effective, the acknowledger must pick up on the very fear, disappointment, anger, sadness, joy, satisfaction, relief expressed by the speaker. You probably noticed I included both negative and positive emotions. Both need to be acknowledged. In the next chapter, we will be taking a look at why listening alternates between being active or passive. Sooner or later, both parties listen both passively and actively. As we shall soon see, there are two kind of passive listening. One kind whose passivity is somehow active promotes listening; the other kind does not.
Active and Passive Listening
To repeat, there are two kinds of passive listening: one kind is good, the other, bad. The bad kind consists of intentionally shutting out those we should be listening to. The husband who maliciously shuts out his wife, or the wife who maliciously shuts out her husband is a poor passive listener. The teacher who maliciously shuts out a student, or a student who maliciously shut out the teacher is a poor passive listener.. Whoever intentionally shuts out a calumniator or gossip monger is a good passive listener. That kind of passive listener has an ethical obligation not to listen to a speaker who maligns an absent victim. Whoever shuts out conversations between strangers is a good passive listener even though that listener takes in neither the speaker’s logical content nor the speaker’s feelings.
However, whoever refuses to interrupt the party who happens to be an associate at work or either a friend or an acquaintance in order to allow that party to speak freely is an active, not a passive listener. That person is an active listener because he or she remains silent for two valid reasons: one, to allow the other party to speak without being interrupted, and (2) to be able to pay better attention both to the speaker’s logical and emotional content. Although that listener appears to be passive, by silently taking in both the logical and emotional content of the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal language, that party is an active listener. In short, interactive listening is not really passive.
The two most harmful habits that get in the way of interactive listening are interrupting the other party, and two, pretending to be paying attention to an associate, a friend, or an acquaintance who simply feels the human urgency to be listened to.
Perhaps no one has described interrupting the other party with greater wit than the wit Nathan Miller who writes that “conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the winner.” As for the ploy of pretending to pay attention to a speker, one wit writes that it helps to nod convincingly while pretending to agree, while simultaneously uttering a few noncommittal sounds.
Regardless of who that associate or friend or acquaintance happens to be, we should always keep in mind that he or she is a human being yearning to be listened to. To deny that person your ears, your mind, and your heart is harmful not only to that person, but to you as well. Martin Buber, the sage of dialogue, was convinced that everyone’s spiritual and social development hinges on his or her ability to dialogue. And while Martin Buber might not agree all interactive listening is dialoguing, I feel certain he would agree all dialoguing is interactive listening.
Once, while I was a guest at a dinner honoring those who worked in a mattress factory, I had the opportunity of sitting next to a pig farmer married to the accountant of that same mattress factory. At one point during this dinner, the pig farmer, seated at my right, found himself isolated from his wife seated at his right. I took the opportunity to draw the farmer into a conversation with an open probe aimed at getting him to talk to me about pig farming. The probe succeeded. For about fifteen moments, the farmer shared several interesting facts about pig farming. I listened attentively while I acknowledged each interesting fact both verbally and nonverbally. The farmer did virtually all of the talking. The next morning in that same mattress factory, his wife came up to me and exclaimed: “Oh, Peter, my husband thinks you are the greatest conversationalist he has ever met!”
Are there other faults that get in the way of interactive listening? Yes, indeed. One of those faults is refusing the temptation to top what the other party is saying. “You think that’s a funny story. Let me tell you about the time …” Another fault is limiting the way to correct a personal problem the speaker invites you to solve. Rather than stating one way to solve the other party’s party, try saying something like the following: “I’ll be happy to share my opinion, but keep in mind that your own opinion or that of others may be better than mine.” In short, resist the temptation of providing your opinion as the only one that is practicable. People who do that usually can’t wait until the speaker comes crawling back to thank them, so great is their tendency to manipulate people.