The Art of Listening to Customers, Employees

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Failure to listen to your customers and employees is often a source of serious business problems. Sometimes, people simply refuse to listen their co-workers or others, often out of prejudice. Some people won’t listen to members of races they consider inferior; some men won’t listen to women. Prejudice can be more subtle than these examples, though. What about a person who looks unintelligent to the listener, or whose appearance is in some other way unattractive?

Prejudice can also overlap with jealousy. What about a speaker who seems just a little bit too perfect? People who want to improve listening skills need to watch their personal listening habits to rule out these types of prejudice. The entire process of doing business successfully can be hampered by selective listening. Clearly, there are multiple reasons why many managers do not hear what their workers and customers are really saying.

Listening expert Anthony Allesandra says that there is one major cause underlying most poor listening habits: From childhood, most of us have been taught that talking requires energy, attention, and organization, but that listening is a passive, compliant position. From kindergarten onward, children in Western society are taught to be assertive, to express themselves effectively. Until recently, though, little has been done to teach active listening, as Dr. Allesandra calls it. What can you do to become an active listener? You can change your listening habits, but as with all habits, these changes take time and effort.

  1. Stop talking. If you are talking, time and opportunity to talk are being taken away from the other person, or people. In many ways, this is the most important rule.
  2. Get rid of distractions. Distractions can be external (such as noise and movements near you), or internal (thoughts and emotions). Move closer to the speaker, change your physical position, put those nagging personal problems out of your mind. All of these are ways to eliminate distractions.
  3. Try to enter into the speaker’s reality. Even before beginning to listen, prepare yourself to enter the world of the speaker. If the conversation is one-on-one, try to make your own needs temporarily less important than those of the other person. Understand that the other person has very real needs. With a public speaker, listen and watch for clues about the world of the speaker.
  4. Use pauses for reflecting. When a speaker pauses, use the extra time to make associations in your mind with other things he or she has said. Think of past experiences in order to see relationships among the ideas being offered. Avoid the temptation to let your mind wander.
  5. Listen for main ideas. When listening to a public speaker, jot down key words and phrases. Take note of repeated ideas. Try as early as possible to see the outline headings the speaker is using. When talking one-on-one, make sure you understand each point made by the speaker. In some cases, this involves asking questions to make certain you have understood.
  6. Give feedback. Many people mistakenly think of feedback only as communication in a one-on-one situation. Eye contact and facial expressions, though, are examples of feedback that can be given in nearly any situation. When talking with one other person, you should respond with “I” statements. Rather than saying, “Your ideas on this project are hard to understand,” say something like, “I feel that an important step has been left out. Why don’t you examine the marketing plan before you proceed?”
  7. Listen for feelings as well as for facts. Most people can understand the facts a speaker is presenting. Tuning in on the emotions behind those facts requires careful listening. Some of that listening can be done with your eyes. Watch for nonverbal messages that communicate how the speaker feels about the subject. Eye and body movements, vocal tone, and posture are examples. By listening for feelings, you also will become more aware of your own feelings about what you’re hearing.
  8. Encourage others to talk. Encouraging others to talk can make you more responsible for what you say yourself. An added bonus is that you are less likely to jump to conclusions about the speaker’s intent. In a public speaking situation, this means allowing others to be involved when the speaker calls for questions. Notice how many of these eight steps involve self-esteem. If you feel good about yourself, implementing all eight of these strategies will be both easier and more effective. Although it might sound too simple, people who like themselves tend to be better listeners.

Lowell H. Lamberton, is a Professor of business/management at Central Oregon Community College.

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