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Listening: Art or Skill? Tips to Improve Personal & Business Interactions

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Articulating What We Need

“I wish I was as good a listener as you,” she told me.

“I can share what I know,” I promised. I’ve worked hard to improve my listening skills, and whatever I have to teach about listening is the result of years of practice. Learning to ask the right questions has taught me that simply asking questions is not enough. I need to really listen to understand, and grasp the import of another person’s stories. 

Many of us have difficulty articulating what we need, (check—that’s me) or the story we want to share. In business situations, each potential client interaction offers a chance for you to bring value to the relationship. A person approaches you because they think you can help solve a problem. But clients are often not clear what their real problem is.

Focusing on the Sale Rather than Listening Loses the Sale Every Time

Active listening, not simply to make a person feel good, but with purpose, is a powerful tool. You may not be able to provide what this potential client needs, but you may know someone better suited to help them. Offering a helpful referral provides not just value, but can bring appreciation from the person who was helped, and the one you referred the business to.

In over twenty years as a working journalist, freelance writer, and personal historian, I have spent countless hours interviewing people, learning to ask the questions that help them tell me their stories.

The most valuable tool for learning to listen is the opportunity to practice. I have not always succeeded in listening well. Other times I listened, but did not fully understand what I heard. An important part of listening is learning to ask the right questions, when to ask them, and how to keep our mouths shut!

Some Phrases to Try

Tell me more…
I don’t quite understand…
What I heard you say…
Back up and tell me why…

A Challenge

We know listening is important. But another voice often competes for our attention—and it sounds strangely like our own. “Wait, I know, I know, let me tell you what I think!” (or some variation—perhaps your inner voice is more restrained and adult-sounding than mine). My brilliant thought, the one that will solve all (well, may not all) your problems, will be forgotten if I don’t interrupt you right now.

If this reminds you of an eager child, it should. Many of us gained our listening skills (or lack thereof) as children. The way we respond to others is likely how we learned to respond within our own families.

Try This

If you fear you’ll forget an important point, apologize for interrupting then state, “I need to write that down so I won’t forget it.” Then do so. This accomplishes two things.

  1. You’ve just demonstrated the value of their thoughts by writing them down.
  2. You’ve also given yourself a break from listening to write down the person’s thoughts. It doesn’t have to be word for word. At the same time jot a note to remind yourself of your thought.

You’ll be able to return to this later. Encourage the person to continue, offering your full attention. You can relax and really listen, knowing that important thought has been retained.

Another Strategy, If You Are Inclined to Interrupt:

Simply take your same index finger, extend it upright, resting against your upper and lower lips. This offers a physical reminder to keep your mouth shut as you continue listening.

Eye Contact Conveys Attention

Not everyone appreciates concentrated eye contact. But in general, it offers a real indication that you are paying attention.

Rephrasing What a Person Said Affirms Your Attention and Comprehension

Regardless of the goal, be it personal or professional, rephrasing (not parroting) a person’s words demonstrates you not only heard, but comprehended what you heard.

Practice!

You’ll find many other challenges—these are some basics. The rest of listening? Practice. Not just in business situations. Embrace every personal interaction you experience as a chance to listen and learn.

Listening for the purpose of documenting a person’s life story is a whole other topic. The principles are the same, but other skills are involved as well. That’s another article…

A Word of Caution

Especially in more personal interactions, a family member, spouse, or friend simply needs to be heard, to feel less alone, and not have their problem solved. Before offering advice, inquire if the person wants suggestions, or is grieving a loss. Listening is still of great value, but your role will be different, the gift of presence, with that index finger firmly planted over your lips.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about how you can improve your interactions? Contact Marjorie to schedule a workshop, at marjorie@marjorieturner.com

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of four self-published Easy Walks trail books. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories and turn them into self-published books, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history; Bellingham Now and Then, celebrating the 300th Anniversary of Bellingham, Massachusetts. Marjorieturner.com

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Marjorie Turner Hollman
Marjorie Turner Hollman
7 months ago

Thanks for helping me share my thoughts. Best to you!

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