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Sixteen Commonsense Listening Tips
Tony Alessandra

The reason you don't understand me, Edith, is because I'm talkin' to you in English and you're listenin' to me in dingbat!"? - Archie Bunker

Archie was right about finding a common language or wavelength, but it takes two to communicate-- the speaker and the listener. Both need to make the effort to understand each other. According to a French proverb, "The spoken word belongs half to him that speaks and half to him who hears."

All skills require learned behaviors and rules.

The rules for good listening involve basic courtesy, sorely needed by Archie, and common sense. Some of the rules may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people forget them and unintentionally insult the speaker.

Often, without intending to be rude, your enthusiasm for a subject and your own desire to hear yourself talk cause you to forget courtesy. At other times you may be so involved with your own point of view that you forget to listen to what your client is saying; you just plain stop listening!

So, when conversing with another person, be aware of and practice the following rules:

1. Let others tell their own stories first.

When others explain their situations, they may reveal interesting facts and valuable clues that will aid you in helping them solve their problems or satisfy their needs. By letting them speak first, you also save time. When their interests are revealed you can tailor your discussion to their particular needs, goals, and objectives and can dispense with inappropriate conversation.

2. It is impossible to listen and talk at the same time.

This basic rule of effective listening is most often broken, especially by Archie Bunker. People anxious to add their own views to the conversation try to interject comments while another person is speaking. They wait for a pause in the conversation and "rapid fire'' their comments at the other person. This interjection of random comments is irritating to the speaker and actually slows the conversation because the initial speaker must dodge the comments and still keep his train of thought. Why not wait until the speaker's point is made? Then you will have your chance.

An enormous benefit of listening to your client is that he may "sell himself." He may solve his own problems or even come up with some product benefits that hadn't occurred to you. In addition, encouraging the client to talk keeps him from feeling pressured into a sale. Building confidence and reducing tension strengthen the trust bond between you and your client.

A client who "sells himself" is likely to be more fully committed and less likely to have "buyer's remorse." He may become a staunch defender of your product, be open-minded in future dealings, and be more likely to listen to you.

3. Listen for the main ideas.

Specific facts are only important as they pertain to the main theme. They can cause misinterpretation if taken out of context. Relate stated facts to the arguments of the speaker and weigh the verbal evidence used. Take advantage of the superior speed of thought over words and periodically review a portion of the discussion that has already been completed.

A good listener also tries to guess the points the speaker will make. Ask yourself: "What is the speaker getting at?" or "What is his point?" Then get feedback. If you guess correctly, your understanding is enhanced, and your attention is increased. If you are incorrect, you learn from your mistake.

4. Be sensitive to your emotional deaf spots.

Deaf spots are words that make your mind wander or go off on a mental tangent. They set off a chain reaction that produces a mental barrier in your mind, which in turn inhibits the continued flow of the speaker's message. Everyone is affected by certain words so it is important to discover your own individual stumbling blocks and analyze why these words have such a profound effect on you.

5. Fight off distractions.

Train yourself to listen carefully to your customer's words, despite such external distractions as a ringing telephone, passersby, or other office noise. Localized distractions, such as the idiosyncrasies of the speaker, may also be irritating, but make a conscious attempt to judge the content of the message -- not the delivery.

Focus your attention on the words, ideas, feelings, and underlying intent. Through practice you can improve your power of concentration, so that you can block out external and internal distractions and attend totally to the speaker.

6. Do not trust to memory certain data that may be important.

Take brief notes because listening ability is impaired while you are writing. Remember -- you cannot effectively do two things at the same time. Write notes in words and phrases rather than complete thoughts. All you need is something to jog your memory later in the day, and then you can recall the complete content of the message. Read your notes as soon as possible to make sure you understand what you put down on paper and always review them before subsequent contact with your clients.

7. React to the message, not the person.

Don't allow your mental impression of the speaker to influence your interpretation of his message. Good thoughts, concepts, and arguments can come from some of your least favorite people. George Jefferson planted the seeds of many ideas in Archie's fertile imagination.

8. Try to appreciate the emotion behind the words (vocal and visual messages) more than the literal meaning of the words.

Try to ask yourself these questions when another person is speaking:

a. What are the other person's feelings?
b. What does he mean by what he is saying?
c. What is his point of view?
d. Why is he saying this?
e. What is implied by what he says?

9. Use feedback.

Constantly try to check your understanding of what you hear. Do not only hear what you want to hear. In addition, check to see if the other person wants to comment or respond to what you have previously said. Archie and Edith could have avoided many misunderstandings by simply using feedback.

10. Listen selectively.

Critical messages may be hidden within the broader context of a conversation. Listen in such a way that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Always ask yourself: "What is he telling me that can help me satisfy his needs, solve his problems, and accomplish his goals?"

11. Relax.

When another person speaks, try to put him at ease by creating a relaxed, accepting environment. Do not give the speaker the impression that you want to jump right in and speak. Give him a chance to speak his mind.

12. Try not to be critical, of the other person's point of view.

Hold your temper and your emotional feelings and try to listen to truly understand. Be patient, Archie. Allow the speaker plenty of time to fully finish his train of thought. You might find that what you were initially going to disagree with wasn't such a bad idea after all. Keep an open mind. If you give the other person half a chance to tell you his views, you might find that you have learned something.

13. Listen attentively.

Face the speaker with uncrossed arms and legs; lean slightly forward. Establish gentle, intermittent eye contact. Use affirmative head nods and appropriate facial expressions when called for, but do not overdo it. Occasionally respond to your customer with "uh huh," "go on," or "yes," to demonstrate that you are listening.

14. Create a positive listening environment.

Shoot for a private atmosphere away from sources of distraction. Make the effort to ensure that the environment is conducive to effective listening.

15. Ask questions.

Ask open-ended questions to allow the speaker to express his feelings and thoughts. A simple "yes" or "no" is not enough. Use development questions like "How can I help you?, or "Where do we go from here?" to ask the speaker for more details on specific subjects. Clarifying questions seek information by restating the speaker's remarks.

These techniques demonstrate that you're hearing correctly. If you keep the other person talking, potential ambiguities clear up. The effective use of questions also allows you to contribute to the conversation.

16. Be motivated to listen.

Without the proper attitude all the foregoing suggestions for effective listening are worthless. Try to keep in mind that there is no such thing as an uninteresting speaker, only disinterested listeners. Put out the extra effort to try to listen.

Learning to listen effectively pays off in stronger trust bonds and increased sales. Others feel relieved to find people who actively listen and try to understand what they have to say about their problems and needs. Once that occurs, the speaker generally reciprocates by listening when it's the other person's turn to speak. That leads to an open, honest information exchange; the kind Edith Bunker was yearning for. Isn't that what communication is all about?

Dr. Tony Alessandra, CSP, CPAE has authored 13 books, recorded over 50 audio and video programs, and delivered over 2,000 keynote speeches since 1976. Dr. Tony Alessandra is recognized by Meetings and Conventions Magazine as... "one of America's most electrifying speakers." For information about Tony’s keynote presentations, contact the Frog Pond at 800.704.FROG(3764) or email susie@frogpond.com.


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Copyright ©2004, Tony Alessandra
Copyright ©2004, The Negotiator Magazine