Listen Up

Fred Mael
Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO, February, 2010

CEOs and managers are advised to focus more on listening in at least two areas. In marketing, you are told to ask numerous questions and to hold back temporarily from reciting your product line. With employees, you are urged to listen to their suggestions and concerns rather than just dictating your wishes. However, it’s not that simple. You can listen to potential clients and still seem disinterested – or too interested. Similarly, if your employees defer to or feel intimidated by you, your listening can actually be stifling. There is an art to listening and it’s not always done constructively.

Think of listening as a continuum. In the middle is genuine, other-focused listening. You make others comfortable sharing their work-related needs and concerns. At one extreme is self-focused disinterest. You feel or act as if the other person has to be endured until you can give your pitch. Or, you are so intent on getting the information that you need from clients or employees that you miss much of what they are saying. You may have had that experience with some doctors. You try to share your fears about not feeling well; they just seem interested in what pill to prescribe or which surgery to schedule. You ask whether you should eat differently or change your stress level – they appear annoyed and act like they wish you would just answer their questions. Similarly, your listening to employees may consist of rapid-fire questions, cutting them off if they are not succinct, and even walking away mid-conversation. While you may think that you were listening, interrogating may be a better description. You may in fact be smarter and quicker than others, but if they know something you need to know and you project disinterest, they will stop trying to tell you.

At the other end of the continuum is being nosy, trying to use what people offer up in conversation as an opening to get juicy information (like romantic status or company politics) that they don’t want to share with a stranger or their boss. You come across as trying to capitalize on offhand comments to invade their or others’ privacy. For example, military personnel generally appreciate when civilians talk to them about their service or thank them for their efforts and sacrifices – but they detest it when the first (or fifth) question is “Did you ever kill anybody?” or “what’s it like to kill somebody?” That’s nosy listening.

Certainly, when marketing you are listening to find out how the person might need your services. But instead of impatiently waiting for them to stop talking or say the magic word that allows you to spring into your proposal, you should really be trying to show empathy – that the other person is important and that you acknowledge the importance of their concerns to them. Almost inevitably, this will lead them attribute qualities to you such as bright, helpful, and someone who gets it – even though you mostly nodded and said “uh-huh”.

So when a potential client mentions that “business is really tough” or “our company is having problems,” she may be building up to refusing your services. However, he may be feeling you out (perhaps subconsciously) for whether you can relate to her concerns.

You then have three choices. One is to implicitly say that: “I just came here to sell you aluminum siding and I don’t care what bothers you” – or worse, saying that “Whatever it is that’s bothering you can be fixed by my product.”(You would be surprised at how many people think that it’s appropriate to respond to “I’m upset because my mother is in hospice care” with something like “Well, maybe a new vase (or a new pool or some gold futures) will make you or her feel better”.

Another approach is to be nosy and pounce on the comment: “How much money are you losing” or “Are you getting ready to fire people?” which may make the person sorry they said anything and fearful that they have already said too much. They will then clam up and wish that you would go away.

The third, better option is empathy. Express with few words that you can understand how that would be stressful or distracting. Or ask an open-ended question like “What’s going on? ” That way, you give them the room to elaborate (or not), depending on how they perceive your interest and trustworthiness. Take their lead as to how many follow up questions to ask. Forget about selling for those minutes and just focus on listening and hearing.

The same applies to your employees who have ideas and concerns to share. You can half-listen and give them the message that they don’t see the big picture or that you’ve heard it all before. You can interrogate them and push them to implicate someone or betray confidences. Or, you can slow down, let them finish their thoughts, and try to learn something from them – or at very least, about them.

This may do nothing tangible for you short-term, but you should reap direct or indirect benefits down the road, including getting better at listening for the next time and the next.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the February, 2010 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine (