So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe. – Isaac Asimov
We’ve all had our share of conversations that just didn’t work – where somehow what needed to be done was lost in the middle of everything that went on.
Why does that happen and what can we do to avoid such an outcome?
Perhaps it has to do with common problems with the way we listen in the first place, so let’s look at some of those.
The first mistake we make is when we don’t really listen at all.
This often happens in meetings or lectures where someone is talking about something and we drift off, thinking about something else.
Some people aren’t subtle about it, doing their emails during the meeting itself – or you get very little engagement from the group.
It can happen in relationships or with your children, when you are busy doing something and they are trying to talk to you and you throw in the odd grunt hoping that will sound like you’re paying attention.
Now, sometimes it isn’t worth paying too much attention – something may not be relevant or impact what you do.
On the other hand, perhaps it does and you’ve not noticed because you haven’t put in the time to think through what it means.
For example, budget meetings can be boring and perhaps the fact that you’re going to miss your forecasts as a company is something you’re not too worried about – your focus is on making sure you do your job and your area of responsibility is well managed.
But, if your area isn’t making money then you might find that you’re seen as an area that needs dealing with – or getting rid of.
The big risk, then, is you don’t see what’s actually going on – the information is there but you’re not in the right position to see it.
The next kind of problem is when you do listen – but for your own reasons.
Think back to a sales call, perhaps when you were cold-called by someone who wanted to sell you something.
They have a goal and an agenda, probably wrapped up in a script.
This script tells them how to talk to you, how to go through a process that will get you to buy what they have to sell.
Now, the thing with this setup is that there is conflict everywhere anyway.
You probably didn’t want to take the call and start by being mildly irritated at being interrupted.
The salesperson has to try and build rapport with the initial questions, asking how you are, for example and then move onto getting time from you to make their pitch.
The thing both of you are really trying to do is work out quickly whether this conversation is worth continuing or not.
I think that if you get to a point where you know that this is something you’re never going to buy you might as well say that to the person calling and end the call.
A few times the person on the other end has gotten stroppy – irritable – because this means he (and it’s been only he’s) wasn’t given a chance to finish his pitch.
That makes it even less likely that he’ll actually make any sales.
Now, arguably, the world of cold calling has been changed entirely – you probably get calls only when you’ve opted into something.
Or if it’s a scam, which appear to be most calls these days.
Some time back I wrote about how a problem from one point of view is often a solution from another.
And selective listening is one of those.
From one point of view, if you don’t listen to the other person and instead just look for ways to advance your own agenda you’ll find it difficult to really connect with someone.
On the other hand, if you make it easy for them to figure out whether they want to learn more or not – if you put in the effort to make it easy for them to select you, then that can be a positive thing.
And that’s one of the reasons why you might shift from cold calling to investing in content marketing – attracting people who are looking for what you do, rather than trying to call and persuade people to listen to you.
Another problematic approach to listening is where you listen but interrupt to add your own views and judgment on what is going on.
I read a post recently where someone talked about doing a pitch where they were constantly interrupted and belittled.
There are several reasons why that could happen – perhaps one person feels like they need to show they have something to contribute during the meeting, or they’re just the kind of person who believes that confrontation is important, showing who’s the boss matters.
There is a tendency for many of us to jump to creating solutions before we fully understand the problem in the first place.
For example, you may have a technical solution to a particular problem.
The question is whether you have a solution to the problems faced by the company, because there will be more than one.
Your software may help with managing a particular data flow but how does it help the buyer deal with their manager, or talk to their board or help negotiate with the supplier.
But that’s out of scope you say – we just do this thing here.
But the thing you have to understand is that the thing you do fits within the thing they do – and unless all the issues they face are addressed your solution can’t really work to its full potential.
It’s important to practice slowing yourself down, stopping being critical too quickly without taking the time to understand why that thing you think is being done wrong may have been created in the first place.
Listen to understand
All too often we approach conversations with a conflict based or confrontational mindset.
We need to change someone’s mind.
We have something to sell.
We have to make them want it.
In sales, especially, people are taught to build rapport, to effectively pretend that they want to know all about you and what you need.
The overt, the open reason for doing this is because they want to understand your business so they can provide you with the right answer.
The implicit, the hidden purpose is that they have something to sell and been given a script and targets and need you to buy from them.
Now, that’s all very well, but it’s a tiring and unfulfilling way to have to be.
A much better approach, in my view, is to take the time to listen and understand what someone really needs.
When you understand that you’ll be able to see how you can help.
And if you do this in the right way there’s a good chance that the person you’re talking to will see that as well.
They’ll see the value in the help you’re offering and can work out if they can afford to have you on their team.
The challenge here, then, is for you to understand everything they’re facing – but how do you go about doing that?
After all, that’s an infinite amount of information – where do you start and where do you stop?
We’ll look at that next.