Why You’re Not As Good a Listener As You Think

by | Jul 24, 2019 | Expert Advice

If I had a dollar each time I hear someone use the phrase, ‘we have two ears and one mouth’, I could buy myself a new Cannondale bike. This phrase is so often misused that I think people say it in the form of pretense with no idea what it really means.

Let me put it this way. If I were to ask you to test out your listening skills in a role play, chances are – unless you were a trained negotiator or counselor – you would be shocked at how poorly you would fare. Many studies have also shown how the majority overestimate their ability to listen, yet, I am sure you still think that you’re a pretty good listener. In fact, research has shown that most people, and mistakenly so, believe that they are quite capable at it, and rarely see the need for further improvement.

Basically, the science says you probably suck at listening. And that you almost certainly think you don’t.

Don’t agree? Then try out this exercise. With the next person you speak to, do not discuss anything pertaining to yourself; speak only about them, what they raise in the conversation, don’t take the conversation anywhere other than what they discuss, ask questions about what they say and drill down a few levels on what they tell you about each piece. Then, time how long it takes for you to crack and start talking about what you want to talk about – I do this with my 13 year old on a regular basis and it’s tough to keep the conversation going on for 30 minutes. You can imagine what she loves to talk about.

By now, I have already conducted numerous role plays with the teams that I work with by giving them a scenario and having them navigate through a conversation to try and discover information about the person they are talking to.

And guess what? A lot of them sucked at it. They didn’t listen, they didn’t ask open questions, they didn’t use active listening nor engage their partner about what the person said. All they wanted was to direct the conversation in a blunt and frivolous way. To be honest, it never ceases to baffle me that the gap between how good people are with this skill, and how good they think they are, is so large.

Which then prompts the questions:

  • What can you do about it?
  • Why should you do something about it?
  • Are you really as bad as I say you are?
  • How do you check? – It’s not as though you can just call someone up and do a check-up of your listening and questioning skills.

To address these, let me start explaining why we tend to be poor at listening; why we should bother to fix it; and how to start getting consistently better at this skill. Without a doubt, if you master the skill of listening – and not just think you have mastered it but really work at improving it – you can expect a change for the better, not just in your career and work life but also in your family life and other personal relationships.

5 Reasons Why We Don’t Listen

  1. We use most of our cognitive bandwidth to think

Our brains can hear at a speed of 125 words per minute, we talk at a rate of 450 words per minute and we can think at a range between 1000 – 3000 words/minute.

Clearly, we are biologically wired to be constantly thinking, to be vigilant and to pay attention to the fluctuating world around you. This makes sense from a primitive perspective, since our early survival may have depended on it, i.e., don’t pay attention to your surroundings and you’ll probably be eaten. But even in the modern world, we seem to carry on with this sort of mentality. Constantly engaging with the world around us, always thinking about what happened before and even trying to figure out what will happen later. So when someone is talking to us, we actually use up a bandwidth of 1375 words per minute to think while trying to listen, and we all know what happens next.

2. We want to further our own agenda

We have our own agenda and are trying to achieve some goal of ours. So we don’t listen and ultimately prevent the person we are talking to from directing the conversation and taking it where they want to go. Simply put, our selfishness and single-mindedness result in us not paying attention to what others are saying and what they would like to do.

3. We don’t believe it’s important

We hear that it is, even claim to know that it is, but our actions reflect otherwise and we seem to just be paying lip service. But why don’t we believe in the importance of listening? Maybe we think we know better, or perhaps we don’t care and just want to sound like we do. But most people do not listen well and if they actually believed in its importance, then they would be doing something about it already.

4. We just don’t know how to do it

I know this might be bizarre but I often hear someone say “I didn’t think about approaching it like that”. However, listening is a skill that needs to be learnt, and have no doubt that it will take many years and much practice to master it. If it was so easy to know how to listen and ask the right questions, then we could all be counselors and hostage negotiators whenever we like.

5. We don’t have a S.M.A.R.T. plan on how we are going to do it

By not having a concrete plan of how you will listen, you won’t see yourself as doing anything wrong when you don’t manage it at all. And this is a critical issue; you need to have a plan, a method, and a style you’re comfortable with. Try to anticipate potential challenges and plan how you could deal with it if problems crop up so that even when things go wrong, you will have something to fall back on. But more importantly, you’ll know when it’s gone wrong.

5 Reasons Why We Should Learn to Listen

1. You develop trust

When you listen, you develop a far deeper level of trust which then changes how the client sees you and how they engage with you in the sales process. Seek to understand! It’s a game changer. It’s fundamental that we seek to understand people, and try to go against our nature of seeking to be understood.

2. You’ll know what to say next

When you listen effectively, you will understand your client better and then easily know what to say. It’s amazing that something so simple is so far removed from how people usually operate in sales.

Start by always thinking of a sales meeting as a blank canvas and that the only way to fill it in is by asking questions. Through this process of active listening, you will get a very clear picture and understanding on how to engage this client and then you’ll notice that next set of dialogue flows beautifully.

3. You will enjoy it more

You will enjoy the sales process a lot more, with a lot less stress. It will flow better and of course, your engagement with the client will be much smoother.

4. It minimizes price-based conversations

You will be able to utilize less price-based conversations. In asking questions, you allow the client to mentally bypass the issue of price and instead allows you to step into the price piece when you are ready. This can only happen when you understand the client enough to know how or if you can help them, and when you know the value of the help you can bring to them.

5. Business volume will increase

Your volume of business will likely double if you were previously using poor listening skills. And if your sales process was based on pitching before, I can tell you once you focus on listening instead, you are in for a lovely surprise. With a little effort, the benefits will be off the charts.

5 Tips to Change Your Habits and Develop Your Skills

1. Read Steve Schiffman’s book titled “Ask questions get sales”. I’m not going to say anything else. READ IT! This book changed my life.

2. Practice 30 minutes of asking questions with your family and friends every day. Do not discuss anything that you want to discuss, only talk about what they want and only ask questions about what they say to you.

3. Follow our “3 by 3” rule of questioning. For each topic or question you ask, discuss three separate areas and drill down three levels for each area or subject. For more info on this, get in touch with us.

4. Understand these words: how, what, where and when. These are key. Understand what people have done in the past, what they’re doing now and what their plans are for going forward. After a meeting, recollect how many times you used those words; the what, why, where, when, past, present, and future.

5. Active listening is an art; it takes years of effort to get good. Like any skill, to improve it, you first have to understand your current skill level, and then try to learn as much about this subject as you can. As always, make a S.M.A.R.T. plan on your next steps and map your progress to remind you how far you’ve come and motivate yourself to keep going.

Active listening is about listening and also engaging in what others have said. Understand how poor you are at these and then keep working at learning more, at practicing what you’ve learned and measuring your progress regularly as you go along. In time, the results of your efforts will come to fruition.

In Sum…

Obviously, we all know that listening is key. Unfortunately, my experience shows that most people don’t know that they are really poor at it. Besides the 5 tips I’ve listed, I’m sure there are plenty more out there on how to improve effectively. But to even begin fixing this problem, first understand where you are on the scale of how effectively you can listen, then work on getting better and see how good you can be.

Your family, your colleagues, your sales, your friendships will all gain from this.

For more information, videos and materials on this subject, feel free to contact us.

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About the author

Fraser Morrison

As the CEO and co-founder of 1000Steps, I apply my 33+ years of sales experience to help professionals excel. Specializing in sales process optimization, I'm committed to driving client success and achieving outstanding outcomes.