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Listening To Your Customers - Part 3

Furniture World Magazine


Third in a series of articles on listening to your customer's needs and responding appropriately.

Editor's note: This article is the third in a series on listening by Peter Marino. Dr. Marino believes that listening is a learned skill that lies at the heart of successful selling. The entire manual will be published early next year as a FURNITURE WORLD sales educational guide with chapter titles as follows: Striving for Significance; Bridging the Space That Divides Us; The Need to Listen; The Benefits of Listening; Defining Good Listening; The Listener's Responses; Nonverbal Responses; Verbal Responses; Clarifying; Confirming; Acknowledging; Balanced Feedback and the Exploring of Ideas; Further Barriers to Listening; and The Satir Modes.

The Benefits of Listening
Earlier we commented on two of the key benefits of genuine listening: one, it lends a sense of importance to the one being listened to; two, it helps the speaker feel a sense of self-actualization, that is, of personal growth and development.
In this unit we'll list some of the benefits that fall to the listener. First, good listening promotes good health, a fact established by the medical research of Dr. James J. Lynch and his team at the University of Maryland Medical School in the eighties. That research clearly documented the vital connection between listening and the cardiovascular system. In one of his reports entitled, "The Language of the Heart: The Human Body in Dialogue," Dr. Lynch wrote the following: "Computer technology allowed us to see that as soon as one begins to speak, one's blood pressure increases significantly, one's heart beats faster and harder, and microscopic blood vessels in distant parts of the body change as well. Conversely, when one listens to others speak or truly attends to the external environment in a relaxed manner, then blood pressure usually falls and the heart rate slows, frequently below its normal resting level."

Studies like that of Dr. Lynch would seem to indicate that the words, "It is the disease of not listening," spoken in Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth, can now be taken literally. We can all do our hearts a favor by listening better.
A second benefit of genuine listening is that it increases self-awareness. To be a good listener, one needs to take in the speaker's information empathically and non-judgmentally, and also to respond freely and openly. This is what Martin Buber called being and not seeming, unfolding and not imposing. By being, he meant expressing ourselves in a way that allows the other person to see us as we truly are without in any way masking our identity. By unfolding he meant expressing ourselves and allowing the other person to express himself or herself without either one imposing one's selfish motives on the other, but instead allowing each other's being to unfold like the unfolding of a flower. What Buber perceived about the importance of the role that self-awareness plays in genuine dialogue is equally true of genuine listening. Genuine listening forces us to practice self-awareness. Listen to what author John Powell wrote in his book, "Through Seasons of the Heart."

Today many of us are asking: "Who am I?" It has come to be a socially fashionable question. The implication is that I do not really know my own self as a person. My person is what I think, judge, feel, and so forth. If I have communicated these things freely and openly, as clearly as I can and as honestly as I can, I will find a noticeable growth in my own sense of identity as well as a deeper and more authentic knowledge of the other. It has come to be a psychological truism that I will understand only as much of myself as I have been willing to communicate to another.

A third benefit is that genuine listening helps us feel more positive about ourselves. This occurs as a result of knowing ourselves better because of our listening. In turn, that self-knowledge helps us feel more positive about ourselves.
A fourth benefit is that genuine listening helps to deepen and improve our relationships at every level. People naturally gravitate toward good listeners because they feel important in their presence. As a result, people turn to good listeners again and again to share both their joys and their sorrows.

A fifth benefit is that genuine listening helps listeners find the solutions to their own problems. J. Kreshnamurti and David Bohm, authors of "The Future of Humanity," seem to have been trying to explain that very point when they wrote: "We are all human beings and all human beings have more or less the same problems." When we listen to the problems of others and help them find their own solutions, we often help find the solutions to our own problems.
A sixth benefit is that genuine listening helps us become more aware of our mindsets. In order to become a good listener we have to become aware of the filters or mindsets through which we take in information from the speaker. Becoming aware of those mindsets is the first step in striving to eliminate them.

A seventh benefit is that genuine listening helps to promote harmony in the home, in the workplace and anywhere else that provides us with the opportunity to listen. That may be because nothing is as consistent a disrupter of harmony in human relationships as poor listening. It is probably also true that many of the other disrupting factors of harmony are themselves affected by poor listening.

There are, of course, many other benefits of listening, too many to be commented on in this article. Listening helps us learn, both in and out of the classroom, in following directions wherever and whenever they are given, in improving one' s general knowledge, in being able to enjoy the words to lyrics, in helping to avoid serious mistakes in life. Finally, those "who have ears but do not hear" are nothing else but poor listeners. They simply have the disease of not listening. True listening assumes that other people have worth, dignity, and something to offer. This attitude makes others feel good about themselves." -Madelyn Burley-Allen, "Listening, the Forgotten Skill"

Defining Good Listening
"From time to time, (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader and everybody could participate. There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more ­ the older ones ­ but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do because they understood each other so well. They could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things." -David Bohm, "On Dialogue".

It is unfortunate that we find ourselves compelled to write about good and poor listening. Correctly viewed, all listening is good. What is referred to as poor listening is not really listening.

The following are the best definitions of listening I have found. They are those of Madelyn Burley-Allen and Michael Nichols respectively.

  • Taking in information from speakers, other people, or ourselves, while remaining nonjudgmental and empathetic.
  • Acknowledging the talker in a way that invites the communication to continue.
  • Providing limited but encouraging input to the talker's response, carrying the person's idea one step forward.
    Listening is the art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between us. Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire and judgment, and for a few moments, at least, existing for the other person.

Let's discuss the key elements of good listening which are in both definitions.

Listening is nonjudgmental.
Being judgmental, especially when that is an immediate first response, may be the most serious barrier to good listening. People who come to us to talk are mainly interested in being understood, not in being critically judged. They are not necessarily looking for agreement; they are simply looking for understanding. Speakers become defensive, especially when they hear a critical response before they are sure they have been understood. In one of her tapes on listening, Madelyn Burley-Allen cites a personal example of how she remained nonjudgmental when one of her fellow managers came to her for advice related to his work. Instead of telling him the "one way" to handle his situation, she shared several ways based on her experience and that of others she knew. A short time later, that manager returned to thank Madelyn for having helped him solve his problem. When she replied that she was just trying to be a friend, he responded that what he appreciated was the fact that Madelyn had provided him with choices but had left the choosing up to him. By his being allowed to choose, he told her, he was left with a sense of personal accomplishment instead of only a sense of obligation to her.

Listening is empathic
Regarding the word empathy, psychologist Michael Nichols described it well. "Empathy," he wrote, "is suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering the experience of the other person." I like the description of empathy as suspending our ego needs long enough to try to understand and to feel what it is the speaker wants to communicate.

Author John Powell, from whom we quoted earlier, has the following comment about the empathic nature of listening: "The good listener offers us this gift of empathy which assures us we are not alone." Elsewhere John Powell analyzes what it is that the speaker would like from the listener: "I was only asking you for the great gift of putting aside your own life and agendas for a while and sharing a personal concern with meI was asking you for the gift of accepting me at the place I am right now."
Empathy differs from sympathy in its end result. The sympathetic listener, like the empathic listener, starts out by demonstrating, verbally or non-verbally or both, the feelings of the speaker. But whereas the empathic listener focuses his or her feelings back on the speaker, the sympathetic listener ends up focusing on his or her own feelings. Empathy, then, suspends the listener's occupation with self. Sympathy shifts the listener's occupation back to self.

This distinction is especially important for those handling customer service problems. Customers do not look for someone to handle their problems sympathetically. The mere sympathizer, often referred to as a bleeding heart, usually finds it emotionally difficult to handle another's problems efficiently and effectively. Customers want solutions not tears.

In her book, "The Space Between Us," Ruthellen Josselson not only agrees with Michael Nichol's description on empathy but also builds on it. She refers to empathy as a one-way street. She explains herself by stating that the empathic listener takes in the feelings of the speaker but then puts aside his or her own reactions and experience.

Acknowledging the speaker's words
"Acknowledging," writes Madelyn Burley-Allen, "is a basic universal need." That statement seems to imply that acknowledging gets to the very heart of listening which is understanding the speaker's message. Acknowledging is a basic universal need because whether it is verbal or nonverbal, it is the main way speakers have of receiving the kind of feedback that helps them satisfy what Michael Nichols describes as "the yearning to be listened to." Acknowledging helps to assure the speaker that at the very least the listener is not indifferent. A government study about a decade ago revealed that sixty-eight percent of those who said they had decided never to return to do business with a given company cited the indifference with which they were treated as the reason for their decision.

Next issue:
Peter Marino will discuss the listener's response and non-verbal responses.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.