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.

Justice for All

Justice for All

I will miss Corrine Whitehead and the spirit she brought to the debate of issues of importance to our region.


Memorialized in May this year at the Ramey Cemetery in Lyon County, the service was fitting for a woman who was a legend in her fight for issues related to social and environmental justice. Described as a fierce but gracious activist for western Kentucky, she was a regional heroine to many and her influence reached across our nation.

I first encountered her in the 1970s when Harl Barnett, the publisher of the Tribune-Courier asked me to do a feature profile on her. At that time, she was the impetus behind securing Hollywood actor Tom Ewell to assist in directing the production of “Babes in Toyland” at Ken Lake amphitheater.

I would encounter her over the next two decades – sometimes as an antagonist when I worked for the federal government, and later as a protagonist when I started my public engagement firm in the 1990s.

Antagonist or protagonist, Whitehead taught me much about the importance of getting people to the table and keeping them there to talk. It was said, from age 19 until she passed at age 94, that she was a stalwart and consistent force against injustices, be it in the arts, human rights, the environment, or the intrusiveness of government in a person’s rights granted under our Constitution.

I know this to be true because I had seen her hold her own with arrogant and recalcitrant government managers and corporate executives. However, for some reason, she never intimidated me, rather she caused me to reflect on the importance of keeping everyone at the table to talk through the problem and find a solution that was mutually acceptable. That principle would later be the basis for our public engagement practice.

Having been displaced from her childhood home by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), she became a fighting voice for families who had been there for generations.

During the ’70s, I helped her and the federal managers engage in dialogue on the matters of clear-cutting timber and maintaining access roads into cemeteries within Land Between the Lakes. In the ’80s, I assisted her in establishing a dialogue about the threat of invasive species and water, and air quality issues on Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River. Moreover, in the mid-’80s, she outlined the dangers to the region’s infrastructure that could be wrought by an earthquake along the New Madrid fault.

Here is what you and I, as small business owners, and what government managers could learn from such an activist:

1. Listen to understand. I witnessed people who did not bother to listen carefully to the viewpoints, and at times, the demands, of Whitehead and her constituency. When someone brings us a problem, an issue or concern, even a question, it is incumbent on us to understand first what is being said or asked before we engage in the collaborative process of seeking a solution.

2. Passion will always trump bureaucracy. Few people, especially at the federal government level, believed Whitehead would change the process of eminent domain; however, representing approximately 5,000 families from Between the Rivers, she and her constituency argued for the right to a trial by jury regarding compensation for properties seized under the federal provision of eminent domain. The case stemmed from the seizure of land in Between the Rivers to create a national demonstration area in the 1960s. The Supreme Court sided with her argument for such a trial; unfortunately for the former residents, the ruling was not retroactive to the Between the Rivers’ complainants. Her passion for justice, combined with her research and analytical reasoning, demonstrated that the government’s project utilization and actual use (how many people would benefit vs. those displaced) were grossly overestimated. The project never achieved the 10 million visitors it projected for the first decade of operation nor has it ever. Passion for a cause and knowledge can overcome most any objection.

3. Know your opposition and their weaknesses. When it came to people’s health and the environment, she was at the tip of the spear. In the 1980s, Whitehead founded the Coalition for Health Concerns, a nonprofit group that advocated for environmental justice. She and her constituency fought to have LWD, a hazardous waste incinerator on the Tennessee River in Calvert City closed, and they were successful. They later advocated for compensation for workers whose health was impacted by their work at the US Department of Energy’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant; this was also a successful campaign. When people have been harmed, justice will prevail when persistence is applied, and you understand your opposition.

4. Vision is fraught with responsibility. The New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12 changed the course of the Mississippi River for a few days and formed Reelfoot Lake. In the 1980s, Whitehead’s research was primarily responsible for bringing public awareness of the earthquake vulnerability of the areas of western Kentucky and Tennessee and southeast Missouri. Agencies such as TVA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and DOE, along with the U.S. Geological Survey Service were persuaded to assist in addressing the emergency management requirements of the region. Vision requires those who have it to accept the responsibility to get things done.

In 1990 when we established Armstrong and Associates (, I received a facilitation contract for DOE for a series of public meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee.

At the initial session in Paducah, I saw Whitehead for the first time in several years. We greeted each other respectfully, and she seemed pleased when I explained that I had started our firm with the mission of engaging in collaboration, often between differing parties, that would lead to mutually agreeable outcomes. I am grateful I had the foresight to thank her that evening for what she had taught me and others about the need for dialogue and collaboration in the face of disagreement.

With a sly smile and a firm handshake, she looked me directly in the eye and with authority said, “And don’t you forget it.”

Whitehead was an example of what Dr. Margaret Meade, the great anthropologist, and sociologist once exclaimed, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever does.”

L. Darryl Armstrong is a crisis prevention and management consultant. He can be reached at 1-888-340-2006 or His website is He is available on a limited basis for speaking engagements and workshops.

“The Donald” and Hillary would be wise to “actively listen” to “We the people …”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would do well to understand the importance of “actively listening” to “We the people …” Openness, transparency, actively listening and continual feedback are critical to the success of any public engagement process.

Six steps to prepare your small business for a disaster

Let’s hope and pray that you never have a disaster however the chances increase daily.

Many of you reading this have most likely followed the looting and rioting that occurred following the Grand Jury’s decisions in Ferguson, Mo and New York City.  The actions of the rioters and looters on small businesses was deplorable and I sincerely hope, yet doubt, that those responsible for breaking into stores and looting will be arrested and prosecuted. Sadly, many of those businesses had not appropriately prepared for such an incident.

As a small business owner there are several things you should do in advance to protect yourself, your employees and your business during a disaster.

First, you must develop a disaster preparedness plan.

This planning is as essential as developing a business plan. Having a disaster plan in place will make the difference between being shut down for a few days, and losing your livelihood forever. The plan should be thoughtfully designed to cover all possible contingencies. You may never face a riot however the chances of an earthquake, fire, flood, tornado or even a robbery in western Kentucky is significant.

Second, get your insurances in order.

We recommend that you have a personal and ongoing relationship with your insurance agent. Choose one who understands the needs of your business and meet with him/her annually to assess and reassess your needs.

If you are in a store-front business such as a convenience store you will need business-interruption insurance. This is the type of insurance that replaces income lost when a business suffers downtime due to a covered peril, which means that you must understand fully what perils are covered.

Many insurance companies no longer cover such things as terrorist, rioting and looting events. Know and understand fully what you are paying for and be a good business person by shopping around for the right agent and a company that will meet your needs.

Here is what I mean by this – your agent is the person you will depend upon to facilitate and handle claims and settlements for you. This person’s behavioral, management and personality styles should at least be complementary to your own. However, if you tend to be a tentative person who will not fight for your rights, you may wish to ensure that you have an insurance agent who will and is truly on your side.

A few years ago, we actually changed our insurance agent even though the company we had insurance with at the time charged a lesser premium. Why? Frankly, this insurance agent would not promptly return our telephone calls, answer our questions with clarity or handle our issues and reimbursements quickly and fairly.

If this is your agent – he/she needs training in customer service and you are not paying him/her to be less than customer focused. Find an agent that meets your expectations and that you are comfortable with while understanding that you as a customer is of paramount importance to him/her.

Third, remember that normal hazard insurance doesn’t cover floods.

It is vitally important that you make sure you have designated flood insurance. Also, ensure that you fully understand what your insurance covers and what is not covered.

Fourth, as the business owner, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I prepared to relocate temporarily? Where might we do this?
  • What would happen if my suppliers were shut down due to an emergency or disaster?
  • Do you employees know what to do in case of an emergency or a disaster?

For example, employees should know where all the emergency exits are located in your building.  A safety coordinator should be appointed and trained. This is the person who will take responsibility for making sure that all the fire extinguishers, security systems and close-circuit television cameras work and that all emergency exits are operational.

This person will plan and conduct safety and fire drills and develop evacuation and business recovery plans. Obviously in many small businesses this will be you as the owner!

Fifth, backup and store vital business records offsite.

Information stored on paper and computer, should be copied and saved on a backup hard drive at an offsite location at least 50 miles away from the main business site, advises the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

This is where we would disagree with FEMA. We recommend using “cloud” computer services to back up your information so they can be accessible from anywhere at any time. Setup and use a password system and ensure that you and at least two other trusted employees have access to that password.

Sixth, develop a simple, easy to follow “business recovery communications” plan.

Assign key employees as facilitators who during a disaster will contact suppliers, creditors, other employees, customers, and utility companies to get the word out that the business is still viable and is in need of assistance in the recovery.

Get yourself trained and train at least one preferably two other persons to be a media spokesperson to keep the public informed of your rebuilding efforts, if necessary.

Finally, recognize and understand that the more strategic planning you do on the front-end the better. The last thing you need to be doing is planning for a disaster when it is underway or impending.

Our mantra about preparing and strategically planning for a disaster has remained the same the past 40-years: “Always plan for the worst, while praying for the best.”