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The Art of Listening (aka how to have a conversation)

Topics relating to managing people and relationships


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Apr 22, 2015
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In a previous thread here, I responded to @Willing2Learn 's question about being an introvert and how that's a real advantage. @Roli , @castr131 , and @ApparentHorizon wanted a longer discussion on what I've learned about the art of conversation. This is my attempt at putting my thoughts together on paper.

A disclaimer: I am someone who is working to get off the slowlane and into the fastlane. However, I have worked in sales for companies large and small and driven millions in revenue for my employers. I was good at what I did. I believe the best skill I've learned so far through this work and other personal development work is developing the ability to listen.

Cracking the ability to listen has transformed not just how I sell, but how my relationships are with everyone. From friends, strangers, or wife, the quality of my relationships has skyrocketed. I've been able to develop a level of trust & respect.

As I go on this fastlane journey (still transitioning from the slowlane...I've got my blinkers on), I think the ability to listen to customers will be crucial. Alright, so let's get to it! I hope this can help other people on this forum learn to listen better so they can discover more sales, and create better relationships with their loved ones.
Adapted from my website here from earlier on this month.

So here’s what I learned from my time here on earth so far. The greatest source of satisfaction and happiness in our lives comes from our relationships. A 75 year long study from Harvard University proves that more than anything, the greatest source of our happiness, longevity, and satisfaction in life is the quality of our relationships. Here’s a great talk that summarizes this research.

Except our relationships are seldom like this. Our relationships are in flux most of the time. We are working really hard to push, persuade, coax, manipulate our spouses, kids, parents, friends, loved ones. And let’s not even get into our attempts at doing this with our employees, employers, customers, or vendors.

You wonder in your ahead (or out aloud): WHY DON’T THEY SEE IT MY WAY!
No wonder relationships are also the greatest source of our misery as well!

Here’s a secret: people do what they want at their own time for their own reasons.

You can try to push, punish, persuade, manage, manipulate them to do something, but they’ll resist. When you’re gone, they’ll cheat. They’ll talk behind your back. They’ll do last minute work.

A better model is first to listen. And then attempt to teach them/set boundaries/etc.

So let’s think about how we can listen more closely. What does it even mean to listen?

It means to make it entirely about the other person. Right now, our conversations, even with our loved ones, is about us. We use it to seek agreement, validation, acceptance, or affection. How’s that worked out for you so far? You might be a charmer (and as a salesperson, that’s how I started off as well), but that charm wears off fast. Those close to you find it unbearable. You find yourself clubbing a person over and over with your opinion.

But we forget that the main point of communication is to gain understanding of the other person. That’s where we get trust and respect. We can only get that if we try to understand the other person.

“To be trusted is a better compliment than being loved.” - George MacDonald.

There is obviously the element of following through based on shared commitments that emerge from the conversation, but you can develop this through mastering the art of the conversation.

So what are the elements of having a conversation with the intent of understanding? With the intent of listening?

WARNING: These are NOT “tricks” to use on people. They will pick up on it. Unless you approach this with a genuine desire to understand someone, without wanting to persuade/manipulate/change/seek agreement with them, this will not work.

But don’t believe me. I’ve written out challenges that can help you implement them.

Using these skills have transformed my life. I’ve had the most intimate conversations and learned more about the interior lives of my friends, my customers, my loved ones, even complete strangers than ever before. This is truly a superpower to be used properly.

What does it mean to use it properly? To help them. This seems to be a common theme on this forum. The Astonishing Secrets thread (which I’m still working my way through) points to that. And sometimes, the very best thing you can do to help someone is to listen to them.

“The deepest desire of any human being is the desire to be understood.” - Stephen Covey

Giving people this space to be understood will be a superpower.

Hold a conversation for 5 minutes with people throughout your day, without making it about yourself. If they ask you a question, answer it briefly and then move it back to them. What you find out might shock you.

Here are the actual four tactics:
  1. No unsolicited opinions
  2. No relating
  3. No judgement/Remain neutral
  4. Get small commitments
I have adapted these from Richard Himmer’s excellent book Listen & Lead. Let’s try to understand them in turn and see why they are so effective. As always, these ideas are based in research and personal experience. I challenge you to try even one of them for a month and not see a dramatic improvement in your personal life and professional life.

No Unsolicited Opinions
Simple economics tells us that the higher the supply, the lower the price it will get. Most of us spend all our time sharing our opinions with others, and then we wonder why no one accepts it. Try going a full week, or even a full day without offering any opinion to anyone in your team, your friend circle, or your family. You will be shocked at how little people want to hear your opinion.

In other words, pushing your opinion is the same as persuasion, manipulation, or pushing others. When you are focused on being interesting to others, you are attached to being right. This is a recipe for a lot of pain. When we seek to understand first and make the conversation about the other person, our opinions (if asked for) are accepted more fully because we took the time to understand the other person.

Challenge: Have conversations this week where you do not offer any of your opinion unless you are asked for it. See what happens. Notice how often people ask for it.

No Relating
We are taught to immediately seek commonalities, build rapport, and make that the basis of a relationship.

“You like The Big Bang Theory? I like that to! Great, now we can cooperate.” Someone we are taught that this is a great way to build trust and respect.

But what happens when someone hasn’t watched The Big Bang Theory? Does that mean there is nothing in common? And what about connecting with someone who is very different than us? Increasingly, we are learning that diversity in our teams helps generate more creative ideas and builds a more resilient organization.

Instead, we must abandon the idea of relating to others and instead make it entirely about them. Give them the space to be themselves and ask questions to get to know them, whether you can relate to them or not. This is much more constructive towards building psychological safety, trust, and respect.

It can be a fascinating journey to learn about something new, instead of rehashing and building a rapport on the same tired 2-3 things that we always do. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it is significantly more powerful.

Not to mention a lot more satisfying. There is a joy in building a fresh relationship when it is focused entirely on them. When we aren’t pressured to find common ground and relate, we give ourselves and the other person permission to be themselves.

Challenge: Next time you meet someone new, make the conversation about them and don’t worry about relating to them. Seek to understand them. You may notice how this builds a stronger “rapport” (actually, it’s a safe space filled with trust and respect) than doing it by relating. Don't try to "mirror" them or whatever other NLP technique you might have learned.

No Judgements/Be Neutral
Neutral? No Judgements? Isn’t this being like Spock? Not necessarily.

If you tried not offering your opinion, you know how little people ask for it. And when we offer our judgements (positive or negative), we make the conversation about us and our perception as opposed to the other person.

Instead of exclaiming when someone wins the job promotion, it’s more thoughtful to ask them “what’s it like to be promoted?” or “what did you do to earn this promotion?” This story is a heck of a lot more interesting. And your approval or disapproval doesn’t need to enter the picture.

We also know that communication is mostly non-verbal. Only 9% of our communication is verbal anyways. The rest of it is based on our intonations and our body language. When we remain neutral, accepting and open to whatever the other person has to say, we allow for a greater connection, and we are able to understand the other person a lot more. When we taint it with our enthusiasm or displeasure, we make the other person withdraw. Now we’re back into offering opinions/relating/judging.

Challenge: The next time someone is sharing a story of a perceived triumph/failure, hold your tongue and don’t share your pleasure/displeasure/support. Instead, probe deeper and understand them more. You might learn that they were not seeking your judgement (positive or negative) anyways.

Get Small Commitments
What happens when you’ve done all this to understand the other person? Now you’re in a position to lead them by asking for small commitments. To teach them through questions, not by telling them. You have to delegate learning to them. You cannot force knowledge into someone’s skull.

As leaders, we often demand the world from others (because often we demand that from ourselves as well). But when we give others permission to be themselves, because we’ve taken the time to understand them, because we’ve earned their trust and respect, our leadership is accepted with a greater willingness.

From the above process, incorporate the best ideas in your vision as a leadership. By involving everyone deeply in the process and creating a positive environment of trust, we can now focus on action. We don’t have to agree on everything, relate on every level. But because we’ve given them the space to share, and have sought to seek understanding before being understood, we can get things done without friction.

What sort of action? Small actions. As I’ve spoken about in my review of The Slight Edge (one of my recommended books here), small simple easy actions leads to big results.

We must ask for commitments for small actions, small commitments from our team members and build from there.

Let’s bring this to running a business. Specifically to do with sales.

When we call up a customer with the intent of trying to persuade them to book a demo/book an appointment/get a sample/give away details, it feels bad. This is why most people don’t last in sales. This is why sales can be soul sucking work. We want to “drive” the sale. Which is covert talk for wanting to manipulate, change, push, the other person to buy from you NOW. But this only creates sales resistance.

Even the “bro” sales guys believe this. Here’s a video someone else linked to in the cold calling thread:

What does he say in a nutshell? He says to not sell things to people who don’t want it. Welcome to non-manipulative selling! You can bet there are people out there ready to buy. Your goal is not to be a hunter as a sales person. Your goal is to be a discoverer. There really are leads out of people who want to buy.

In my experience, the most effortless sales have happened when I make it about discovering the sale instead of driving it. Once I’ve found someone who wants to buy from me, I give them an honest look at both the pros and cons of my product/service and let them choose. I hold nothing back. At each intersection, I ask them “is this satisfying to you?” If not, I walk up and leave. No hard feelings.

Instead of having a conversation which asks a customer:

“Why do you need our service?” <-- this is me focused. Ask instead: “What do you want SEO services?” A small change, but the tone of the conversation is different.

If you guys want me to talk more about how to sell like this, I will try my best to answer questions to that effects.

Hope this is helpful! I will admit there are a lot of nuances I missed out. And I'm certainly not perfect. This is a work in progress for me as well.

TL;DR: Your quality of professional and personal relationships goes up dramatically when you make it about understanding the other person. It is more satisfying, and it builds more trust and respect.
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Sep 18, 2018
This is one good thought on the lost art of listening. Listening also helps in finding the problems which in turn can be converted to ides. Thanks, man.


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Feb 22, 2018
Great post. With the added social media and less person-to-person interaction, I feel like the art of listening is becoming art of listening for a split second while I pretend to listen until it is my time to speak about myself. People don't listen, just wait for their turn to speak. In my very limited cold calling career, I feel like I want to tell the potential client information so they are interested in my product but in return I don't listen to them as much. I know that is my problem and I am slowly trying to overcome that. Thanks for the post and will be looking into the books you mentioned.
Also, it was tough listening to the "bro".


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Apr 9, 2019
Challenge: The next time someone is sharing a story of a perceived triumph/failure, hold your tongue and don’t share your pleasure/displeasure/support. Instead, probe deeper and understand them more. You might learn that they were not seeking your judgement (positive or negative) anyways.

At least for me, this is difficult to implement. I don´t feel very comfortable NOT to go along when they feel triumphant. But I will try.
Great post.
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