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Listening, The Often Ignored Skill

Furniture World Magazine


Level one listening. Hearing happens, but listening is a choice.

Due west of Minneapolis, not far from North Dakota lies Lac Qui Parle, the Lake That Talks. Some years ago, while driving past that lake, I reflected on how appropriate it might be to have a counterpart to that lake called Lac Qui Ecoute, the Lake That Listens. I went on to conjure up an imaginary Lac Qui Ecoute in my novellette, "Alice in Furnitureland" (which you can read on FURNITURE WORLD'S website FurnInfo.com). How different the lakes! Lac Qui Parle is a toxic sulfuric stagnant body of water whose shores are littered with the bleached bones of salespeople who talked themselves to death; Lac Qui Ecoute's shores are fringed with the trees in full blossom whose fragrance drifts on the tranquil breezes. There Alice sees no signs of any human inhabitants alive or dead.

When I wrote those passages, I did so believing I was employing hyperbole or conscious exaggeration. Several years later I realize that the skill of listening is rare indeed among people in general and rarer still among salespeople in particular.

I'll go out on a limb and state that none of the sales educators and trainers I know, yours truly included, have till now come to the realization that listening is a skill. Even those sales systems which attest to the importance of listening as a skill, proceed to reveal that they really look upon listening as an attitude. In other words, the most these sales systems do is to preach the importance of listening, much as our parents and elementary school teachers used to, with statements like "Pay attention" and "Listen carefully to what I'm saying," and "Are you paying attention to me?"

Now, no music instructor would hope to teach the skill of playing the piano simply by exhorting her pupil to pay attention to the musical score. Yet that is exactly what all our sales training systems do. Where does one find a single page dedicated to the skill of listening?

This oversight on the part of sales trainers should come as no surprise. After all, our school systems have long suffered from the same oversight. While they have always taught reading and public speaking to some extent, at no level have they taught listening. Perhaps this is because the educators in our primary and secondary schools have always felt that listening is natural and needs no special training. Only in texts on communication do we find a recognition of listening as a skill. In part, communication experts like Madelyn Burley Allen, Michael Nichols, Ron Meiss and others have put out excellent books and audio tapes on the subject of listening. There is no excuse for sales trainers who continue to ignore the definitions and attitudes on listening of these and other authors.

What is listening? Let's first state what it isn't. It is not merely hearing. Anyone blessed with healthy ears and brain can hear. Yet the experts have known for some time that the average adult listens at about twenty five percent of full proficiency. Imagine! The average listener regularly misses out on seventy five percent of what is being communicated. In other words, the average person is a 'third level' listener. The experts on listening tell of three levels of listening. Of these levels, only level one is genuine listening. What is level one listening? The two best definitions I have come across are those of Madelyn Burley Allen and Michael Nichols, respectively.

"Listening is taking in information from the speaker while remaining non-judgmental and empathetic, acknowledging the speaker in such a way that it invites the communication to continue." - Listening, the Forgotten Skill.

"Listening is the art by which we use empathy to reach across the spaces between us... Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgment and for a few moments, at least existing for the other person." -The Lost Art of Listening.

Let's focus on the bold words in each definition and see how they might apply to listening to our customers when we are selling. Both definitions seem to relate quite well to selling.

First, both authors stress the importance of suspending judgment. Why is that important? Probably because customers do not come into our stores to be judged, even when the salesperson's judgment may be well intentioned. I am reminded of a story told me by Margie Elkind, retired accessory buyer for Weberg Enterprises. One day she found herself in the home of a potential client who had invited her to talk about possibly hiring Margie to do some interior design work. Her eyes happened to light upon an intricately woven table cloth. "What an interesting piece of work," Margie commented, "Is it your own work?" The woman replied that it was work her Greek grandmother had done in Greece when she was young woman. "Do you think it'll fit in with my new furniture?" she asked. Rather than expressing her own feelings pro or con, Margie inquired how the prospect felt about it. ''I couldn't live without it," she answered. "In that case," Margie continued, "it should remain.''

What Margie didn't know at that time is that the prospect had recently fired another designer who told the client the table cloth had to go. "You know, Margie," the prospect said, "when she told me that, I was so angry that I turned to her and told her that she had to go."

Each day, salespeople fall into the trap of being judgmental or critical. They give their opinion without first inviting that of their customers.

Other less obviously judgmental irritants are expressions like, "I own this sofa" and "This is our best seller" and "You're wise to ask for leather. No other fabric is longer lasting," and "You're obviously thinking of taking the mattress with you. I noticed your truck in the parking lot." I remember how I almost lost a leather sale in San Francisco some years back. When my customer, a svelte, chic looking woman asked to see our leather selection, I answered without first qualifying: "You're wise to look into leather. It's so long lasting." To which she matter of factly replied: "I really don't care how long it lasts, I change my upholstery every two years." That lady was kind. She gave me a second chance and went on to purchase from me.

The second key feature in listening is to suspend memory and desire. That means:

  • Putting a hold on all our anecdotes to top those of our customers.
  • Foregoing talking about our "hot buttons."
  • Leaving out all those things that we might find exciting which concern us and not the customer.

By and large, customers don't come into our stores to get our biographical sketch. They come to have us listen to their basic needs. At least fifty years ago psychologist Adler stated his thought that the highest human need was to feel important. Our listening helps attain this basic need.

The third key element in level one listening is to be empathic. Being sympathetic is not enough. Customers come in looking for solutions. The salespeople they like most are those who leave them feeling like they solved their own furniture problems. That's what consultative selling should always be. Customers love ending up with the feeling that the salesperson ran interference for them; but that they ran the ball into the end zone. That is the reason they appreciate knowledgeable, skilled salespeople. They're not looking for a salesperson to wipe away their tears or hold their hand. They're looking for empathic salespeople who can get beyond their tears with solutions that go to the heart of the problem.

The fourth key element of level one listening is that of acknowledging or showing a caring awareness of what is important to the customer. Customers don't care how much we know until they know how much we care. Acknowledging does exactly what Madelyn Burley Allen says it does; it invites the communication to continue."

It invites the customer not only to continue following the logic of what is being communicated, but more importantly the feelings. "Invite'' is a word replete with feeling. It denotes a freedom, a willingness on the part of the listener to exist, if only for a short time, for the speaker. No wonder Ron Meiss, an expert at listening, writes that hearing happens, listening is a choice.

My composition, the ten beatitudes follows:


1. Blessed are they who listen, for they shall be listened to.

2. Blessed are they who listen, for they promote loving kindness.

3. Blessed are they who listen, for they are the bread of those hungry to be heard.

4. Blessed are they who listen, for they are the true counselors of the world.

5. Blessed are they who listen, for they are warmth in winter's cold and coolness in summer's heat.

6. Blessed are they who listen, for they foster peace among those of good will.

7. Blessed are they who listen, for theirs are the ears of friendship.

8. Blessed are they who listen, for they help reach across the space between us.

9. Blessed are they who listen, for they give greater meaning to our freedom of speech.

10. Blessed are they who listen, for they are spared the disease of not listening.

In the next issue we'll take a look at the inter-human element of dialogue. At the same time, we'll take a closer look at the individual I consider the greatest exponent of the dialogue, namely, Martin Buber, Israeli philosopher and theologian. A man whose work can greatly benefit the practice of professional sales consultants.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.