Business development is about building relationships. Listening builds relationships.
If you’re trying to develop new clients, then listening well is your surest way to build rapport. In mere minutes, it can generate lasting positive feelings that accelerate the relationship-building process. In fact, you will earn their trust quicker, which typically takes a while with new relationships.
When it comes to existing clients, listening more effectively will not only position you better for immediate and long-term opportunities, but it can also lead to the sort of bond that only trusted advisors have with their clients. And those clients can end up sticking with you not just for years, but for decades.
So, ask yourself: Are you a good listener? A good listener:
- is in the here and now, avoiding distraction
- avoids rushing to judgment
- is curious and asks the right questions
- does not interrupt, and
- makes others feel heard.
Developing a Listening Mindset: Empathy is the Key
Your first key to listening is to set aside your own needs for a few minutes and genuinely seek to understand what the other is trying to convey. This is about mindset. If you go into the conversation thinking about “selling,” then you’re more likely to be waiting for your turn to jump in and be interesting, solve a problem, or prove how smart you are. The “selling” mindset is the saboteur of listening. Business development is built on relationships and listening builds relationships. So listen first, sell second.
If you want to be a better listener, you need to know how good listeners do it. Effective listening is a skill that has three parts: attentive listening, active listening, and most importantly, empathic listening.
First, attentive listening.
Attentiveness is physically showing that you’re listening and are paying attention. We show attentiveness with non-verbal cues such as steady eye contact, head nodding, the occasional uh-huh or hmm, or even through a knowing smile. At a networking event, you aren’t looking over their shoulder to see who else might be in the room. And you’re not looking at your phone for tapas recipes on Pinterest.
Second, active listening.
Active listening makes people feel heard. It means being involved in the conversation by paraphrasing what the speaker has said and asking effective follow up questions. Rather than mimicking or parroting what they said almost verbatim, it’s better to just use your own words to confirm that you have heard them correctly.
Good stock questions that make people feel listened to are:
- What do you mean?
- Why do you say that?
- What happened next?
- Can you give me an example?
Finally, empathic listening.
If you want to truly connect with people, empathic listening is the best method. It means playing back the emotion you hear behind what the other person said. An empathic response shows that you hear the emotion behind the words. An active question may make someone feel listened to, but an empathic listener makes someone feel understood.
Empathic listening requires a thoughtful response. If a client’s response to your simple query of “How’s it going?” is a sarcastic, “I’m living the dream, staring at spreadsheets all day again,” an empathic listening response would be: “You’d rather be doing something else.” Or “Sounds like that’s not the most exciting part of your job.”
Empathy Is not Easy but Blocking It Is
For most of us, the empathic response is not our stock response, and it takes some work to learn. In fact, some of our stock responses to the people around us who need empathy result in exactly the opposite: we further alienate them. We fall back on these “empathy blockers” when we seek to distract from a trying situation and force someone to move on from it, whether or not they’re ready to.
If you find yourself having cliché, knee-jerk reactions to the complaints of those around you, you may be blocking empathy. If your response to the above client is a throwaway line like “Yeah, I spend way too much time in front of Excel too,” or “Maybe you should hire an assistant,” or “At least you have a job,” you are not helping them. You are blocking empathy — and the possibility of a deeper connection.
How to Practice and Improve
Ceasing to block empathy is a positive step, however, to build empathic listening skills takes practice and you master it gradually. Start small: instead of using every communication interaction you have with every human you interact with, to get practicing, pick one person from your work life and one from your home life.
By having one person in each environment in mind to practice empathic listening, each time you encounter them will be a trigger for you to stop, listen attentively, and really try to get at their emotion. Try this for a week and when you’re comfortable, pick one more person to focus on for the next week.
Generally, it takes about a month to develop a new habit — if you work at it. In the case of listening, you will quickly notice people responding to you differently, and the value added to your business relationships will last your entire career. And it will show up as new opportunities in the pipeline and more revenue on the books.
Want to Get Better at Listening?
There are many good resources for improving listening skills.
If you are on ToolsHero, go to https://www.toolshero.com/communication-skills/empathic-listening/
Harvard Business Review has a nice summary:
Moving from Active Listening to Empathic Listening:
Communication Coach Alex Lyon has a great session on it:
Therapy in a Nutshell has a good video with strong examples for your personal life:
Print Books on Listening
- The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (Michael P. Nichols)
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Chapter 7: Seek First to Understand)
- Working with Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman)