The lost art of listening – 10 steps to develop your skills

Several years ago, we started going to Tybee Island, Ga., a quaint, somewhat eccentric version of Key West, Fla., off the coast of Savannah. Over the years at Tybee, we have met quite a few characters, made quite a few friends and learned some lessons applicable to life and the business world.
Two Tybee people in particular have given me a great deal of understanding about being successful in business and life. I am proud to say that Mr. Vince and Jimbo are my friends.Mr. Vince and Jimbo (I have not changed their names to protect their innocence) worked in the same type of business for years — something akin to collections of medical payments, as I recall.

To meet these two fellows with their charming smiles, quiet Southern voices and twinkles in their eyes, you would not guess they were collectors of bills — maybe collectors of stories and songs, but not bills.The reality is that they did moonlight at one time as “singers” at a local establishment with their bartender friend, who could actually sing. They laughingly referred to themselves as The Overachievers. Yet, I digress.

What I learned from these folks just by being with them is the importance of listening. Despite their many experiences, they were eager to listen to others tell about their experiences.I have come to believe that listening is the most important communication skill available to us as business people. Few of us practice this skill effectively in business or our everyday lives.

I am sure Mr. Vince and Jimbo successfully used listening skills in customer service situations because they demonstrate this so well in their personal lives.

As a child, I was often reminded that a child was expected to be seen and not heard. These were the “early” days of developing my listening behavior.And frankly, I realized that I like to listen and watch people. I have learned a great deal about people by watching their behaviors and listening carefully to their stories and observing their nonverbal behaviors.I also have learned how to be more compassionate, empathetic and understanding by listening to people who have gone through, or about to go through, a tragic event in their lives.

Listening has helped me write eulogies to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on. Listening has helped me construct wedding vows that unite people in marriage.Listening has helped me deal with customers and clients who really don’t know what they need or want. These clients know they need some kind of help, but are unable to articulate exactly what that is.

By listening, I develop the necessary understanding of a situation so that I can help the client better understand what is really needed. When we listen to our clients, we are providing them with a much needed form of “therapy.”By listening carefully, I can work with angry customers. I demonstrate to them that I care about them and what they have to say.They help me to help them solve the problem.

To practice good listening there are 10 key points to remember.

1. Don’t assume you’ve heard the story before. The Earl of Chesterfield Phillip Stanhope once said, “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” And, who knows, you may actually pick up on something you missed before.Every problem deserves to be heard through to the end. People want to be respected, and the greatest respect we can show them is to truly listen to what they have to say.

2. Don’t second guess the speaker.Nothing is more irritating than to begin talking and then have the listener jump into the middle of one of your sentences saying, “I know what you’re talking about.” This gives the speaker the impression you are in a hurry and just want to ease them out of the office or get them off the telephone.Even though you may be trying to empathize with them, you need to hear all of the information before commenting. And, more importantly, they need to be able to tell you all the information.

3. Suspend your judgment until you’ve heard the situation through to the end.

4. Take notes. Frequently someone who has a problem will tell you more than you need to know about a situation. It is important that you listen for the key facts, and taking notes can help you zero in on the real issues.

5. Be careful about giving off your own negative non-verbal signals as you listen.

6. Much of how we feel is often transmitted through facial expressions or the way in which we hold our body. Be as relaxed as you can be and keep your facial expressions and body movements noncommittal.

7. Be patient. It helps a customer to vent (remember, this is therapy for them) and gives you time to think.

The other day at the airport I was sitting and reading a business article and enjoying my coffee. A stranger sat down beside me. I acknowledged him non-verbally, and then he started talking and talking and talking.He talked for almost 10 minutes about a bad experience he had that morning at breakfast and the terrible service he had received. I listened intently.I learned that his name is George, and that he is a CEO of a major company in Atlanta. He gave me his card and I shared mine.

Finally, as his business companion approached, he said, “You know you would make a good therapist. Thanks for listening.”I told him I have a great deal of practice. You see a good facilitator is a better listener. And, one day, he may need a good facilitator.You never know.

As my grandfather always said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth.”

The next time your client or even a stranger needs to talk, take the time to listen.8. Don’t feel obligated to reply to every statement. Keep listening and only respond to the important points. Remember you can’t fix everything.

9. Listen to understand rather than spending the time mentally preparing your next remark.

10. Be sure to ask inviting and open-ended questions that can result in more informative answers. Then, recap what you heard and clarify any points you didn’t understand.

Listening is truly an art.Let’s not pretend we know it all.

Socrates said, “Wisest is he that knows he does not know” in 399 BC. It was true then and it is true now.We learn from those who have a story to share. We should not feel awkward listening to folks at all levels.

We first must learn — and listening is the first step — before we can teach. And even then, there is more to learn.

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