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Listen to Learn, Learn to Lead

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by: Todd McCormick (@TMcCormick2011)
06 March 2014

"Man's inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively."
— Psychologist Carl Rogers

Smart, strategic professionals are obsessed with improvement — whether it’s with your content and marketing campaigns, sales numbers, staff and leadership style, or even your golf game. You strive to be not just a leader in your company, but a leader in your market. That means keeping your information fresh and your skills sharp.

Why, then, do so many fail to sharpen the most important tool in a professional’s toolbox: listening skills?

Is Listening a Lost Art?

While most people would agree that listening is a vital skill for leaders, very few of us spend time actively improving in this area. Though we learn 85 percent of what we know through listening, most people only spend about 45 percent of their time doing so, according to the International Listening Association.

In fact, less than 2 percent of all professionals have had formal training to improve listening skills. So, it should come as no surprise that:

  • Only 12% of people believe their employers genuinely listen to and care about them. (Source: Maritz Research)
  • Nearly half (43%) of customers don’t provide companies with feedback, thinking it’s not worth complaining because companies simply don’t care. (Source: Rapide and YouGov)

These numbers show how many opportunities we waste every day, when we could gain valuable insights from our teams and our customers.

Learn to Listen, Learn to Lead

In a world filled with talking (or tweeting, for that matter), professionals who know how to listen stand out. In doing so, they engage the hearts and minds of their customers and emerge as leaders in their industries.

So, what does it take to become a better listener?

Think Conversation, Not Interrogation

Asking the right questions is an important part of business conversations, but that doesn’t mean pelting someone with one question after another. Instead, think about having valuable conversations through questioning based on the ANSWERS you're getting in the dialogue.

I see this a lot in sales. You can give salespeople 15 questions they need to ask, but unless they’re great listeners, they can ask the questions and still not understand what they’ve heard or get any useful answers.

I see this in marketing campaigns, particularly those focused on products and features, rather than the value to the customer or potential user.

I see this in relationships. One of my colleagues recently told me about a first date. When she found herself asking all of the typical questions (e.g., “Where are you from? What do you do?”), she knew she wasn't interested in the guy and left. Kudos to her — for saving her time and his.

What this all boils down to is caring. If you don't, your audience — whether that's someone on the other end of a discovery call, a marketing campaign, or your significant other — will feel it. Caring means listening and responding. That's what makes good professionals great: Because they're curious and care, they listen closely and uncover the root of customers’ problems, so they can offer compelling solutions.

Think Active, Not Passive

Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business, says that in our increasingly fast-paced and noisy society, we’re “losing our listening.” In his TED Talk, “5 Ways to Listen Better,” he explains that we only retain 25 percent of what we hear. Why? Because we’re not consciously listening, which is the only path to true understanding. His video has attracted more than 1.5 million views, making it one of the top 100 TED talks of all time. Check it out for five ways to improve your conscious listening:

Keep Learning, Keep Listening

Becoming a great listener isn’t something that happens overnight. You can’t take one listening course or read a couple articles, and be done. It’s a lifelong learning process that requires focus, practice, and a continual thirst for knowledge.

For more effective listening strategies, check out these two Forbes.com articles — “Communication Secrets of Great Leaders” and “10 Steps to Effective Listening.”

Also, stay tuned to my 2014 blog series on listening and marketing. There’s much more to come.

I’d love to hear about your journey to become a better listener. Please share your tips, strategies, and stories here. I’m listening.

Related Resources:

1) Blog: “Talk Less, Listen More: The Key to Truly Understanding Your Customers

2) Ebook: “15 Post-Purchase Emails That Build Loyalty and Drive Revenue

3) Video: “Creating a Connected Customer Experience

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