Active Listening: The First Step in Excellence, with Michelle Golden

Presented by: Michelle Golden
of Golden Marketing Resources

Session Moderator: Michelle Golden founded Golden Marketing Resources to implement business development and management solutions within small to mid-sized professional service firms.

Michelle spent several years as the marketing director for Williams-Keepers LLP, a mid-sized regional CPA firm. She then joined the multi-state law firm, Husch & Eppenberger LLC, as the marketing manager for all six of the firm’s offices.

Michelle - the floor's yours.

D. Michelle Golden: Good afternoon! It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you for your interest in “Active Listening.” If you have any questions at anytime, I encourage you to please post them!

I believe service excellence is made up of 3 major components: Communication (every little thing), Quality (value) of services, and Delivery (presentation) of services.

Today, we’ll focus on the “communication” part.

Solid communication, definitely a huge part of selling our services, also remains the most important aspect in stellar service provision. Sometimes we land a great client with good communication skills, then sort of "forget" to keep listening... Listening, alone, can truly set you apart from others.

Have you ever been turned-off by talking with somebody who goes on-and-on about him/herself?

But we know that most people *love* to talk about themselves. Better yet, almost everyone responds favorably to someone who shows genuine interest in them.

D. Michelle Golden: Right?

Session Moderator: Absolutely!

Craig S Hanson: Yes!

D. Michelle Golden: The goal in a first meeting with someone or any subsequent meeting where you want to build or enhance rapport, is to convey your sincere interest in the person. The best way to do this is with active and reflective listening techniques.

First, there are what I’ll call “Creative Listening” techniques out there that I strongly advise you to steer away from. While feedback from the listener is important so a person feels “heard,” there is an aggressive technique some teach that involves interrupting people as they are talking-sort of like what you might do with a pal when you catch their drift. But in business, this is highly inappropriate. Interrupting breaks rapport, it does not facilitate it. It often causes the other person to clam up!

There is another technique using what is called “tag questions.” Tag questions? Yeah. Tag questions are when you take the last couple of words and present them back as a question. A question?

See how irritating this can get?

Session Moderator: Yes.

D. Michelle Golden: has anyone ever done this to you?

Session Moderator: All the time. I think they're buying time while processing their reply.

Craig S Hanson: Many times!

D. Michelle Golden: Timing and genuine interest are critical for it to work. Once in awhile, it’s okay when you use it to reflect interest or to encourage the other person to continue. But use it sparingly!

The “buying time” comment is important! You don't ever want to be obviously processing your next words while you are supposed to be listening. Use the “Golden Rule.” No pun on my name intended, I’m talking about THE Golden Rule-well, at least the “listening version of it:” listen to people the way you’d like to be listened to.

How do you feel when someone you are talking to appears bored or fidgets?

Gary Muller: It makes me feel like I am wasting my time.

D. Michelle Golden: Exactly!

Jack Fox: How do you know if the person you are talking with is listening to you?

D. Michelle Golden: True story. A colleague of mine accompanied an accountant on a sales call. During the meeting, while my colleague was engaged in conversation with the prospect, the accountant removed his wallet and proceeded to empty and sort all the contents!

D. Michelle Golden: Do you think the firm was hired? Why not?

Gary Muller: It is hard to listen while you are occupied with another task

D. Michelle Golden: Right. I'll venture to bet the accountant heard every word the person said. But how would the person know that!

Session Moderator: Eye contact is important.

Cheryl Kirsch: I always like to make steady eye contact, but it sometimes makes people uncomfortable.

D. Michelle Golden: Cheryl, kudos for the eye contact. It isn't easy for many to do. A steady gaze that drifts once in awhile is usually best.

Session Moderator: Good rule of thumb.

D. Michelle Golden: How about when you’re talking and somebody asks irrelevant questions?

Jack Fox: Answer them.

Gary Muller: You wonder if they are in the same world as you or if they have a totally different point of view

D. Michelle Golden: When somebody asks irrelevant questions, if you’re like me, you probably feel like there is no real “connection” being made. Whom would you trust more: someone who understands you, or someone you don’t feel has a clue about what’s important to you? It is simple and true: when someone *feels* like you understand them, they will trust you more. I highlight “feel” because the person’s perception is their reality.

Cheryl Kirsch: If I feel like someone has no clue about me, I start tuning out anything that they are saying.

D. Michelle Golden: Cheryl, that is filtering. I'll talk more about that, too. You may know what they mean, but they need to be assured you do!

Jack Fox: What about nodding in agreement?

D. Michelle Golden: Nodding is great! But do be careful not to imply you agree with everything.

D. Michelle Golden: Empathy is important but so is objectivity. I'll cover more on that in a moment

Cheryl Kirsch: I find it helps if I say, "What I hear you saying is…" It gives the person an opportunity to clarify if I've misunderstood.

Gary Muller: Many times, most times for clients, tax and accounting subjects are boring to clients. Although it is important information for them to hear, they don't want to. I try to put some humor in the dry subjects.

D. Michelle Golden: Good point!

Cheryl Kirsch: One of our accountants sprinkled a "dry topic" with jokes about accountants - it helped keep the rest of us interested.

D. Michelle Golden: Jokes are great, but may be out of place in a very serious conversation. And sometimes people's humor is not in sync.

Cheryl Kirsch: Good point.

Gary Muller: I have found appropriate humor can be a powerful equalizer in many one-sided conversations - when the barriers come down, listening seems to improve.

D. Michelle Golden: Humor can be a great icebreaker and will lessen tension in a difficult moment. I'm terrible at telling jokes, though, so I steer away from them :)

Whenever you talk with someone do these few things: make a gesture to “clear the decks” maybe by removing papers from your desk or pulling a chair closer.

Look at the speaker in the eye. Don’t stare but a gentle gaze will do.

Jack Fox: Will humor make them feel you are not taking them seriously?

D. Michelle Golden: Jack, I think it's all about the individuals involved. If it seems risky, avoid it. But do smile broadly and frequently.

Gary Muller: I have not had a negative reaction to the humor. I have a client that thinks coming to see me is worse than seeing the dentist.

D. Michelle Golden: Gary, that's not a good sign. :)

Cheryl Kirsch: Why do they dread coming to see you Gary?

Gary Muller: Because of the dreaded IRS.

Cheryl Kirsch: But you are there to keep the IRS away, right?

Gary Muller: Anything having to do with taxes or the IRS puts this client right on the edge of 50-mile high cliff. I have also found that most of my small business clients do not wear suits. When I do it puts them on edge as well. It makes them think I am superior.

Cheryl Kirsch: It is very important to lean forward.

D. Michelle Golden: Gary, creating a comfortable setting is especially important for those clients. Offering them a drink, having comfy chairs, warm surroundings, all that will help.

Gary Muller: Anything to make the client feel more comfortable is a positive.

Cheryl Kirsch: I have also had positive responses to humor, but I'm not a joke teller, it's more relating stories with a humorous point.

D. Michelle Golden: Maintain a relaxed posture, but do lean forward slightly. Both edge-of-your seat or slumped in the chair are not good! Cheryl, there is a good balance. If one leans forward too much, it can be perceived as aggressive. Just enough to be attentive is best.

Active listening and reflective listening are the most effective techniques to use. Active listening is when you have a genuine interest in what the speaker has to say.

To listen actively involves five things: 1. Listen to the CONTENT = words, facts, figures, ideas and logic. If you don’t understand, ask the speaker to clarify. (Please pardon my caps, I’m not really shouting)

2. Listen to the INTENT = the “why” rather than the “what” and 3. Assess the speaker’s NONVERBAL communication

Pay attention to the body language, facial expression, tone of voice, how words are spoken-even choice of words will convey deeper or hidden feelings or problems

Can you see how paying such close attention is to your advantage?

4. Monitor YOUR OWN nonverbal communication and filters = be aware of your body language, facial expressions, and subtle responses to what you are hearing. Most importantly, try to keep a clean mental slate...we all have biases...just control them and don’t let them make you “hear something different” from what the user is saying.

This is a really important one. Can you think of an example of a bias that would make you draw a conclusion about someone based on one word they say?

How about the word “consultant”? What are the first things that come to mind?

Some would say "aggressive" or "expensive" or "specialized"

I just saw an article this morning that ripped "Survivor" Richard apart because he was a "consultant"

Gary Muller: Someone who has knowledge I want or need but don't have

D. Michelle Golden: Yes, but you are also a consultant yourself!

So while you, the listener, are thinking of all these things, the speaker’s actual point could get by you. Or at least diverted. Suspend your biases and preconceived notions-withhold judgment and comment until you’ve heard all they have to say. This will make you a more objective listener, a wiser listener

Jack Fox: What if the person starts to speak obnoxiously about minorities, alternative life styles, etc?

D. Michelle Golden: Good question, Jack. If someone is being offensive, they are probably not someone you want to impress with your listening skills. You would probably rather not do business with, or hang out with someone on your personal time, who offends you. This gives you an opportunity to "qualify" your lead and don't hesitate to be choosy!

5. Listen to the speaker empathetically (and non-judgmentally). This is what sets you apart from other listeners.

Reflective listening takes active listening a step further. It mirrors what the speaker is saying, allowing him or her to gain a fresh perspective on what s/he has just communicated. Reflective listening works best in one-on-one situations when someone is trying to solve a problem or think through an idea. It also can be used in group situations when there's a need to clarify what someone is saying.

Your empathy and lack of passing judgment will show you care and understand the problem, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree. It is important to remain neutral yet caring. How you react to the speaker is the true measure of your ability to listen non-judgmentally. There are 3 important points, here:

1. Respond to the behavior or idea, not to the speaker. For instance, “I understand your point,” v. “I understand you.” You don’t want to make this a personality issue.
Jack, this could come in handy with the situation you mentioned. Simply state what part you DO understand

2. Respond in the present, not the past. The past cannot be changed, as a problem solver, you can only deal with the present and try to control the future.

3. Respond by describing, not evaluating. If you put the speaker on the defensive, you’ll shut down communication. Describe what you think is being said, not what you think *about* what is being said

Mirroring back what you've heard them say, but in your own words. Stick to the facts.

For “Deeper Listening,” you should use probing questions. This doesn’t mean “how much do you make?” or anything, but it does mean you should strive to ask questions that prompt the speaker to stop and ponder before they answer

(See, that was my attempt at humor...)

Your goal is to get them to think of something they’ve never noticed or considered before.

(Actually, if it's a prospect, you will ask how much they make, but obviously not anyone else...)

You probably have “opening” and “information gathering” questions down pat: “What are the major issues?” or the famous “What concerns keep you up at night?”

What are some others you use?

Any who, what, where, when, why and how questions. “Why are you moving?” “What were the factors in that decision?” These are pretty instinctive for us, but we often underestimate their power.

Take some notes about what to ask while someone is talking. Keep them minimal, but it's better to write them down than to forget them or interrupt.

Further detail is gleaned from “clarifying” questions: “What do you mean by ‘everything’?” or “How do you define ‘fair’?” For the really good stuff, try introducing new ideas with hypothetical questions. “Suppose you tried this option, what do you think would happen?” or “Pretend you could have it any way you desire. How would that be?”

Another approach is to encourage the speaker to voice new or unspoken ideas. We all get stuck in a rut sometimes and we these have “other” ideas in the backs of our minds-all we need is someone to draw them out of us. Try asking: “Are there other ways to solve this problem?” or “If you were to describe two acceptable options, what would they be?”

Alternative questions are useful and very effective. You never want to come across as being single minded in your approach or guidance because a person who relies on you still wants to be able to make some choices to feel in control of their situation. Put yourself in the situation. Does it bother you when someone suggests there is only one option? Try asking: “Between these two options, which do you consider to be more attractive?” or “In thinking about all the possibilities, in what direction do you find yourself inclined to move?”

Jack Fox: Does it matter who is in "control" of the conversation?

D. Michelle Golden: Jack, I think you want the other person to feel "in control." By watching their body language and letting them complete their thoughts, then only asking them questions about what they've said…you are demonstrating their thoughts/feelings/opinions are of paramount importance to you. I can guarantee they won't feel like you've dominated the discussion though you have guided it.

Applying this to your business situation, think how many opportunities for selling additional services you might come up with, all by being a good listener.

The most effective questions are “comparative” questions. The purpose here is to get someone to relate two different issues to measure impact. It helps people change their perspective. Two examples are: “What new factors have been introduced in your market from, say, three (5, 10) years ago?” or “How does e-commerce impact your projected sales for next year?” The best journalists in the world use these kinds of questions. They make for powerful interviews.

There is a lot to consider when doing what most of us consider a simple task: listening. Reviewing these techniques makes us more aware of how effectively we use these talents and how much we can improve. I suggest you try some of these things out on your kids, your spouse, even your boss. I bet you’ll observe they notice something different about you. A simple example is making direct eye contact with your son or daughter when he or she tells you about the first day of school.

May I answer any questions for you? This was a lot of info.

Jack Fox: Thank you Michelle. My wife insisted I attend this workshop. She was right.

D. Michelle Golden: I hope you enjoyed it!

Session Moderator: Does anyone else have any questions?

Craig S Hanson: There sure is a lot to think about. It's too bad that something that seems simple doesn't come naturally!

D. Michelle Golden: Craig, it takes tons of practice. I work on improving every day.

One last tip: Try to match the speaker's facial expression and voice

Session Moderator: Thank you Michelle for a great workshop! Thanks to all of you for attending.

D. Michelle Golden: Thank you very much for having me.


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