The Art of Listening

hearing aidI was speaking to a friend the other day.  He was very excited by his new hearing aid.  He said he can carry on a conversation now, without having to ask the other person to repeat anything.  He can hear birds singing and even crickets chirping.  He said “I can actually hear a pin drop.”  It was expensive, but well worth it.  He said he thought it was the greatest hearing aid in the whole world.

So I asked him, “What kind is it?”

He looked at his watch and said “12:30”

I know it’s a corny story, but it makes a good point.  Even with perfect hearing, we often don’t hear what the other person is saying.  We may think we do, but somewhere between the speaker’s lips and our brain, the message gets short-circuited.  “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

As business people we have to know what our customers want.  Barring a psychic gift, the only way to do that is to listen to what they’re saying.  But sometimes you have to read between the lines.  It’s been said that people have two reasons for doing something.  One is the real reason.  The other is the one that sounds good.  Sometimes, but not always, they’re the same.

For example, a customer may tell you that you don’t have the item that they’re looking for.  They may cite some feature or other that your offering lacks.  That sounds good.  But maybe their real reason for not buying is that they can’t afford something with the quality that you offer.  They’re over their budget, but they don’t want to admit that.  They save face by putting up a smoke screen.

You may have exactly what they want, but if you don’t ask questions to get through the smoke, you’ll never make the sale.  You can’t overcome an objection that doesn’t really exist.

The same is true with your employees.  Let’s say your best person comes into your office and give you notice.  “Why?” you ask.  And he gives you a reason.  Maybe he says he needs more money.  You offer him a raise but he still says “no”.

Maybe the real reason is that his wife wants him to take a bigger part in raising the kids.  Maybe she’s missing too much work.  But rather than admit that his wife is making him quit, he uses money as a smokescreen.  Again, a few probing questions might get you to the real reason.  By offering an additional day off, or more flexible hours, you might just retain a good employee and not have to give him a raise.

Here’s the thing.  Information is vital in running any business, especially a small one.  The key to good information is good listening.  And the key to good listening is asking the right questions and paying attention to the answers.

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