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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can you hear me now?

By Dick Hirsch
Most people would rather be talking than listening. Can we agree on that? I hope so because the statistics for years have shown that people are captivated by the sound of their own voices and while they take advantage of every speaking opportunity they generally don’t enjoy listening.

The result is that often most of what is being said in any meeting, forum or personal conversation isn’t heard. The International Listening Association, which has hopes of someday remedying that situation, claims to have found some dispiriting data, data that should dismay both talkers and listeners. They say that most people retain only half of what was said immediately after they hear it. With the passage of time the situation worsens; they only remember 20 percent of what they heard.

That is discouraging because of the quantity of spoken rhetoric that is available today. It comes at us from every direction, but we are not dealing here with 24/7 cable talk or any of the electronic media. We are talking about person to person engagement, real people having real conversations.

I make no special claims for unusual ability as either a talker or a listener. However, a recent interlude in my personal life brought the question of listening to center stage. I encountered a person with whom I am familiar at a social event. We greeted and exchanged pleasantries in the usual manner. Then the person asked me a question regarding a matter of general interest.

As you will understand, I spend much of my time asking questions. Yes, and since it is a necessary skill, I listen to the answers. The responses often become material for this column and other projects involving the written word. I’ve always been frank to admit that I am far better at asking questions than answering them, but it is always flattering to be asked. So I replied. It wasn’t a long reply because brevity is always a consideration.

As I spoke I noticed the eyes of the questioner began to refocus, peering beyond my face, scanning the activity in the background. I realized I was talking to a wall.

I’m sure you must have experienced that type of situation in your own life. It happens everywhere people gather and conversations take place, the office, the club, the coffee shop, or the territory where a potential seller intersects with a potential buyer. Most people think that being talkative is the essential characteristic of every successful sales person, no matter what product is being sold. However, sales training specialists insist that it isn’t the verbose person who usually gets the order. Rather, it is the competitor who is the patient listener, the person who is likely to later remember and understand the customer’s needs.

My early experience came when I was working as a door-to-door salesman during a summer vacation from college. The district manager advised me simply: “Look them in the eye and ask them questions related to the problems that can be solved by using our products. Then pay attention to the answers.” His concept was that the potential customer would be more likely to become a buyer if you seemed to be interested in his or her needs.
We all base our attitudes on past experience and role models. Many people don’t realize it, but role models come in two versions, positive and negative. If you develop a positive role model then you attempt to emulate that approach; if it is a negative role model, you do the exact opposite. Years later when I spent some time as a salesman, I was fortunate enough to recognize the boss as a negative role model. He was very effusive; the general view of him was that he talked himself out of many orders.

Listening isn’t simple. It is an indispensable ability for every journalist and I am still striving to improve that skill. As a young reporter I often became inattentive and impatient; stories couldn’t be recounted as quickly as I would have preferred. I soon learned that there are times that require speed and other times that require a more unhurried pace. Just a few weeks ago I had finished an interview and closed my notebook when the subject, as an afterthought, made a casual comment which really resonated and changed my approach.

This column gives no advice but my feeling is that listening is an art that deserves equality with talking. Can you hear me now?



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