Proactive listening has proven to be the conduit to greater success. So, how do you actually become a better listener? Here are 10 proven strategies to implement today that will make you a masterful listener, communication titan, sales champion and transformational leader.

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After reflecting on all of the topics and areas that I focus on as an executive sales coach, it’s evident that many of the challenges, upsets and stressful problems we face have resulted from someone not hearing something, filtering the message, costly assumptions around what the person will say, judgment of the person you’re speaking with or receiving the message in a way that was not intended.

In general, people feel that concentration while listening is much more difficult than concentration during any other form of personal communication. Actually, concentrating on practicing proactive, intentional listening is more difficult.

In fact, People spend between 70% to 80% of their day engaged in some form of communication, and about 55% of that time is devoted to listening.

To compound this, you probably don’t give much thought to how many words you take in each day. Research suggests that the average person hears between 20,000 and 30,000 words during the course of a 24-hour period.

Even though your ears are capable of picking up on many words, your brain doesn’t necessarily process all of them. Most people only remember about 17 to 25% of the things they listen to.

Here’s another interesting statistic that also challenges our ability to listen. Research shows that men only use half their brain to listen while women engage both lobes. If you constantly feel like your spouse or significant other is tuning you out or becoming impatient in the conversation, this may be why.

While aging plays a part of how well we listen, exposure to loud noises is behind 15% of hearing loss in adults aged 20 to 69. Even 15 minutes of listening to loud noise each day can cause permanent hearing damage. If you’re a concert lover like I am, this can clearly impact your ability to listen during normal conversations.

An estimated 38 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. That’s about 12% of the total population. Even a mild hearing loss can cause children to fall behind in school. Studies show that they may miss out on as much as 50% of what’s being said in the classroom.

People generally don’t know how to listen. Most of the time, it’s because we don’t realize it’s a leaned skill that needs to be the priority in every conversation. Learning how to listen proactively, which I discuss here in Part One, provides the framework to practice intentional, value based listening. Here are ten strategies you can implement today that will make you a masterful, proactive listener and communicator.

10 Ways to Become a Masterful Listener

1. Encourage silence to show you are actively listening.

Listening builds trust. Unfortunately, one of the barriers to proactive listening is caused by the fact that we think much faster than we talk. The average rate of speech for most Americans is around 125 – about 175 words per minute. However, people can listen and understand approximately 400-700 words per minute.

Your ears work faster than your mouth. This rate is slow for the human brain. Because of this large gap, it makes it even more challenging to avoid distractions, stay focused on listening to the accurate message the other person is trying to convey, be present and practice more patience, especially when you have to be mindful of the amount of words you can actually process each minute.

As a result, many salespeople and managers only wait a split second to respond to a client’s or direct report’s comments or questions. Instead, get in the habit of waiting a minimum of three to four seconds before responding. Even count to yourself to ensure that enough time has elapsed. This conscious pause will make the person feel heard and comfortable enough to talk more, since your pause demonstrates that you have a sincere interest in what they are saying.

Although many people find it challenging to stay quiet, silence creates the space that will encourage people to share additional information. It also gives you enough time to respond thoughtfully and intelligently to someone’s specific needs. Besides, look at the words: SILENT and LISTEN. Notice that each word shares the exact same letters.

Some of the most valuable coaching conversations are the ones where I’ve asked only a few questions and gave the persons space to process, self-reflect and talk through their experience, goal or challenge out-loud for them to hear it, which fosters self-awareness and self-discovery. At the end of the conversation, clients often tell me, “Thanks for your advice, Keith.” in truth, I didn’t share any advice. I simply gave the person the space for them to work through their goals, objectives or challenges on their own, reinforcing the fact that people can truly solve their own challenges if you just give them the time and space to do so. And since people believe what they say but resist what they hear, this creates the ownership and accountability around any solution, since they’re the ones who created it. Subsequently, this increases the likelihood they will then take the actions needed, rather than being told what to do.

2. Never interrupt while someone is speaking. While this may be common knowledge, most people still find it difficult to resist the urge to jump in so their voice is heard.  Especially during more heated, challenging or emotional conversations, do you still honor this best practice? The irony is, cutting people off while they’re talking creates the opposite effect. This disrespectful practice actually creates mistrust, erodes relationships and causes people not to listen to you!

How good are you at giving people the space to process and self-reflect? As a leader, salesperson and a coach, this can make the difference between success and failure.

If you find yourself interrupting others during a conversation, it’s one of three things. One, you’re only focused on pushing your agenda and getting your point across. Two, you’re already assuming what the person is going to say and as such, stop listening and start rebutting. Three, you believe communication is a competition with a loser and a winner, rather than a collaboration. If any of these are true for you, trust will imminently be annihilated.

3. Suspend Judgement. We have a habit of branding people based on our experiences with them or what we’ve observed. Instead, be present. Listen with an open mind, without filters or judgment. Avoid passing judgment on the person your speaking based on who you think they are, their perceived status, past experiences, their position and title, or the relationship you have with them.

Focus on what the person is saying (or trying to say) instead of being concerned with getting what you need or closing a sale. This shows that you have a genuine interest in helping them, not just yourself. Otherwise, you run the risk of continually recreating the past or missing subtle nuances or inferences that could have either eliminated a challenge, uncovered a new and better possibility or created a sale.

4. Make the person feel heard. This goes beyond simply becoming a better listener. It ensures that the person you are listening to actually feels heard and respected. To make someone feel heard, clarify what they said during the conversation. Rephrase their comments or questions in your own words in order to ensure that you not only heard but understood them. You can use any of the following clarifiers to start.

  • ”For my own understanding, what you are truly saying is …”
  • ”To further clarify this …”
  • ”What I am hearing is …”
  • ”Help me understand …”
  • “That’s interesting. Tell me more …”
  • “When you say (more value, better pricing, improved service) can you help me understand how you mean and what that looks like for you?”

Asking questions and using clarifiers demonstrates your concern and interest in understanding where they’re coming from or finding a solution for the person’s specific situation. Since words often hold different meaning to each of us, this creates alignment around the definitions each of us hold around certain words or phrases. Now, you can avoid the risk of drawing conclusions based on your assumptions and past experiences.

Tip from the Coach: Paraphrase listening works on a similar principal. For example, if a client complains about improving business results or spending too much time recruiting and training, you can summarize: ”Yes, trying to find the right employees to help the long-term growth of your business can be very challenging as well as time consuming.”

5. Become a solution-oriented listener. Spend more time listening for a solution and a way to create a better outcome or new possibility than you would on the problem. One study concluded that listening to nagging or complaining for 30 minutes or more can cause damage to the part of your brain that handles problem-solving skills. That’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re stuck talking to a complainer or a negative person.

Instead shift the conversation to the solution and what people can control, rather than remaining stuck in the mire of negativity or the things people complain about that are out of their control. An example may be a scorecard or the KPI’s that are used to measure performance. Some of these you can control. However, some you can’t, especially if your goals and business objectives are non-negotiable and sanctioned from the top.

Here’s how you can handle this. “Jane, I can understand your position and in many ways, I agree with you. However, rather than focus on what we can’t control, let’s spend our time focusing on what we can control, such as your skill set and the activities you can engage in that will enable you to achieve your goals.”

6. Listen for what is not said. What is implied is often more important than what is articulated. For example, if you sense that a client is sending conflicting messages, ask more questions to explore the meaning behind the words and message the person is sharing to create consistency. Moreover, your words only convey about 7% of what you’re trying to say. The other 93% is communicated through facial expressions and the tone of your voice.

7. Resist the temptation to rebut. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to resist any new information that conflicts with what we believe. Often enough, when we hear someone saying something with which we might disagree, we immediately begin formulating a rebuttal in our mind. And if we are focused on crafting a rebuttal, we are not listening. Remember that you can always rebut later, after you have heard the whole message and had time to think about how to respond in a proactive rather than a reactive way.

8. Listen with Intention. Consider that during most conversations with clients, we listen to information. In other words, we only passively hear their words. However, when you proactively listen for information, you are looking under the words to explore the implied meaning behind them. This prevents you from wrongly prejudging or misinterpreting the message that the person is communicating to you. There are many things we listen for when speaking with someone, especially a client, peer or direct report.

Here are just a handful of things we can listen for:

  • What is missing
  • Truth
  • Assumptions
  • Fear
  • Beliefs (positive and negative)
  • Behavioral patterns
  • Concerns the person may have or what is important to them.
  • What they value.
  • What they want and need in order to fill in the gap between where they are now and where they want to be.
  • Goals
  • Priorities
  • Pain, challenges
  • Solutions
  • Facts
  • Opportunities (rather than hunting for problems)
  • Confidence
  • Alignment and understanding
  • The other person’s opinion and point of view
  • Strengths
  • Performance gaps and developmental opportunities
  • Needs
  • Values
  • Motivators
  • Ideas and innovation
  • Peoples preferred communication style
  • Personal accountability

9. Remove the filter and assumptions in your listening. As I mentioned in the listening self-assessment I shared in Part Two of this series, a filter is a limitation we create in our listening based on experiences and fueled with assumptions. Another way of saying this is avoiding “already listening.” That is, you’ve already had the entire conversation in your mind, which fosters the belief that, “What happened in the past will happen again.” This line of thinking is also based on a series of assumptions you perceive to be true only because you’ve experienced it before!

The greater cost is, when this happens, listening stops. As mentioned, when you pass judgment on people based on age, success, assumptions, perceptions, past interactions or how they look; when you invalidate people based on what you see or based on a similar situation someone else, you build the wall between yourself and the other person that sabotages clear and open communication, connection, trust and understanding.

10. Listen for the Why

To transform into a masterful coach and communication titan, there’s a fundamental inner shift we need to make in our belief system. What’s the why? Focusing on what’s going on only treats a symptom. Then we wonder why we’re running into the same problem again and again. When you focus on the why, you’re getting to the root cause, which can then foster long term change.

This is the inner game of listening. That is, in every conversation, lead with questions, rather than leading with answers. Doing so shifts your focus away from solving everyone’s problems or offering up solutions. Now, it’s up to the other person to self-assess, speak through their issues or goals and even talk themselves into their own solutions! Especially when selling, while many salespeople have talked themselves out of a sale, shattering any opportunity to earn trust or a person’s business, no one has ever listened themselves out of a sale.

Final Thoughts Worth Hearing

Listening is a learned and practiced skill that will open up new opportunities in every area of your life that you may have never noticed. It allows you to receive and process valuable information that might have been missed or neglected otherwise. So, invest the time needed to sharpen your listening skills, and watch how it dramatically improves your relationships with others. Who would have thought that becoming a proactive listener builds trust, and makes your life easier and more fulfilling!

Be mindful of this trap. Especially if you’re a manager, if you’re someone who’s never had someone who gives you that unconditional space for you to share openly, honestly and without worrying about being judged, then it’s often more difficult to recognize how important it is to give it to others, especially your team. So, ensure you make this a priority for others, as well as for yourself.

Practicing proactive, intentional listening stimulates the universal law of reciprocity. Notice what happens when you give someone the gift of your attention and listening. They will want to reciprocate. That is, “If you demonstrate respect and care when listening to me, then I’ll do the same for you.” Imagine how this will impact every relationship you have.

Remember, when speaking with someone, you’re not always learning from listening to yourself talk. Besides, all anyone wants in a conversation is to be heard, respected and acknowledged.  And today is the perfect day begin giving the gift of proactive listening to others that costs nothing to give.