Are you listening?

One of the keys to successful negotiation is to listen and understand what’s REALLY being said by the ‘other side’. As a mediator and negotiator, listening is my stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean it happens easily.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve not slept well over the last couple of weeks. There’s a lot of it about, especially just now, but last week I became conscious of an effect that has wider implications than simply feeling a little weary for a few days.

Last week I attended a number of networking events. OK, nothing unusual in that – as a business, networking is an essential part of my marketing – but I noticed a key difference to my usual approach. I caught myself talking to people. Again, there shouldn’t be anything unusual about that, and its an essential part of any networking conversation. BUT someone had asked a question, I had answered it, and for some reason I found myself still talking.

I was explaining the background to the answer I’d already given, some theoretical aspects of negotiation, the rationale behind making management-staff partnership work more effectively. It was all good stuff!

But did they want to hear it? And was it even relevant to them or their business?

As I spoke, I realised I needed to listen.

Actively listen. So I switched back on, brought my discourse to a close by asking them a nice, open question about themselves while making a mental note to think more about what I’d just experienced.

So, what had happened? Reflection led me to conclude that I was tired, so I’d inadvertently taken the easy road. Listening passively is easy, it takes little effort and, in return, you get little for it. It’s also easy to talk. The difference with talking is that it can feel productive, even if it’s not. It’s often a case of “less is more”. The result was that I’d slipped towards passive listening and talking because my tired mind headed for the path of least resistance.

Active listening, on the other hand takes a bit of work.

Asking searching, relevant open questions, then listening to and processing the answers, often making connections with something they said earlier, takes concentration and application. But, much as the effort/return from passive listening is minimal, the return for active listening is significant: improved understanding and a genuinely rewarding conversation. In the context of business networking, it offers the potential to better understand what makes someone tick, what issues affect their business.

One final thought: active listening is not just a business skill, reserved for technical conversations, negotiations and mediation. It’s a skill that can enhance any conversation, any exchange, any relationship. And, no matter how much you practice, it’s always worth a wee sense check to make sure you’re actually using it!

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