Active Listening – Part 2

May 13, 2009 on 11:39 pm | In Negotiations | Comments Off

In our last post we talked about some of the techniques you can use to develop better skills at active listening. In this post we will talk about some additional active listening skills and also about some tools for persuasion.

When the situation calls for it, and negotiations usually do, a question often comes up over whether you can take notes while engaged in active listening. Certainly you have to drop the eye contact to look at a piece of paper, but the simple answer is yes – it is appropriate to take notes. LIMITED notes. Why limited? While eye contact encourages a focus on what is being said, most people will remember better things that they write down. By making limited notes you can focus on those most important things and commit them to memory. Further, some note taking suggests to the speaker that you consider something they said so important that it is worth making a “permanent” record of it. And there is something interesting about the written word. When we see something in writing, we naturally believe that it is more accurate [you know like they say, “I found it on the web so it must be true!”] Obviously that is NOT true, but we laugh because it is “almost” true. We are more likely to believe something that is written down, and if you are writing what the speaker is saying, you are encouraging them with the subliminal message that you believe what they are saying. So yes, it’s OK to take notes during active listening, but keep it limited and only the high points. Keep it short so that you can re-engage the eye contact.

When you are speaking there are a few techniques that will encourage active listening by your audience. Certainly the use of eye contact and positive body language just as when you are listening, but now you also have the tool of your voice. Speak softly, but loud enough to be heard. Temper your words. Do not be aggressive with your language or your attitude, just as you should not appear condescending. If your listener perceives that you are speaking down to them, they will stop listening and begin plotting their revenge. You can’t control their perceptions completely, but you can work toward not antagonizing them! And I can’t emphasize this enough – there is NEVER a place for vulgarity or profanity. Remove those words from your language in all situations.

When making an argument, break it down into bite-sized pieces. Don’t lay everything out at once. Make it follow a logical progression. Ideally you want them to reach your conclusion before you get to it. In that way they perceive it as their own idea. This is good. Don’t make the waters murky either; concentrate on the key points and ignore the inconsequential ones. In the same vein, stay focused and try to keep the conversation on point.

Another strong suggestion for being persuasive is to make sure that you advocate for a particular position rather than simply being against theirs. If you just disagree, you will be perceived as just disagreeable. This does not enhance the relationship and remember that all negotiations involve three aspects – the subject matter, the process, and the relationship. Have a particular result in mind, but there is no need to be dogmatic about it. Keep in mind that you are on a quest for the ultimate interests. Positions are where you end up after you understand the interests.

Another excellent suggestion is to eliminate the word “but” from your lexicon. Why? Because whenever there is a “but” in a sentence it is a big red flag that says “everything that came before this is about to be negated.” It is an indirect (and passive/aggressive) way to say, “You are all wrong!” People don’t like that. So what if instead of using “but” you convert every one into an “and?” This validates what they have said and adds to it. Try this in your everyday conversation. You will see a very different reaction from those around you.

And the last suggestion today is this: Don’t worry about who gets credit for an idea that closes the deal. The goal is to close the deal. If your ego is that large, you probably aren’t an active listener (or a very good negotiator) anyway!

What is Active Listening?

May 12, 2009 on 4:18 pm | In Negotiations | 1 Comment

When you are negotiating, selling, or in any situation where you need to build a relationship, there is one very simple skill you should master to make these encounters more powerful and rewarding. It is the skill of active listening.

What exactly is that? There is an old adage that God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason – we should listen twice as much as we talk. Stephen Covey tells us that a key habit of successful people is to seek first to understand – then to be understood. We all want to be understood – or at least heard. The problem is that most of us have developed some very bad habits that send constant signals to people that we are NOT listening! So one goal of active listening is to shut down those signals.

The first of these is to establish solid eye contact. This is not a staring contest to see who can go without blinking for the longest time. Eye contact tells the person that you are focused on them; that you are listening to their every word. It should be natural and you should try very hard to not pay attention to the TV behind them, or the dog running down the street, or the cop writing a ticket on – wait a minute is that your car? OK, there are legitimate distractions, but absent that, stay focused on the speaker.

You can also use positive body language. Stand straight. Nod in understanding. This does not indicate agreement; only that you are listening. Where you place your hands can also invite the speaker to provide more detail or explanation. Putting your hands on your hips (called “akimbo”) suggests that you are impatient and this will quiet them more quickly. Fiddling with change in your pocket or jingling keys can have that same effect. Try to keep your hands still. Don’t sway, dance, or shuffle your feet. Be relaxed. And listen.

We can all listen far more quickly than even the most rapid speaker can talk. What we usually do with this surplus brain power is to formulate what we are going to say next. While some thinking allows us to comprehend what is being said, resist the temptation to formulate your entire next monologue after hearing the first ten words of the person speaking. In the same vein, don’t interrupt. Even if justified, it makes people angry and they respond accordingly. Let people drone on if they must. It makes them feel as if they are being heard. This sometimes takes some patience, but it is part of active listening and a trait that you should work to develop.

You should also practice a few natural phrases that encourage people to tell their whole story. Such phrases as, “and then what happened?’ or “and how did that make you feel?” or “Please tell me more” all serve to get more detail from the speaker. Not everyone is a good storyteller, so they might need some coaching to get the story laid out in a complete fashion. To improve your skill in this area practice telling jokes or short stories. Very few people do this well, but it can be learned. One positive suggestion is to read Mark Twain – the consummate storyteller.

The last suggestion for now (there is more, but we will cover that next time!) is to practice repetition and rephrasing. State to the person what you heard. Put it in your own words if you must, but this gives them a level of confidence that you understood things they way they intended to convey them. This repetition also locks it into your mind so that you can recall it later.

Practicing active listening is harder for some than it is for others, but in negotiations it is a critical skill that is worth the practice.

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