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Career Coach: Good listeners make better negotiators

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By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, January 24, 2011

In all of the negotiation and leadership seminars I conduct with executives, one topic I always address is the importance of listening. We teach people how to give a presentation, but we don't often teach how to be an active listener. However, we all control our listening and it has a tremendous impact on how others feel about us and the particular situation.

Leaders who use active listening are better able to draw out ideas from their employees and can better empathize with them and build stronger relationships. In negotiations, if you are in the midst of a difficult situation, listening enables you to understand what is important to the other party.

As William Ury, author of "Getting Past No," says, "listening to someone may be the cheapest concession you can make." It gives you insight into the other person's views and it makes him or her more willing to listen to you. Research indicates that effective negotiators listen far more than they talk. Inexperienced negotiators are more likely to talk (rather than listen) to try to "sell" someone on their point of view. They have trouble with silence and fill in those silences by telling more than they should. Also, by being so concerned about their own side, they are less likely to really hear the other party.

To evaluate your own listening skills, get feedback from trusted friends, family or colleagues. The Center for Creative Leadership has a helpful pamphlet for managers on active listening that provides an assessment tool (see http://www.ccl.org). Or maybe you have already gotten plenty of feedback about how "you don't listen." In that case, what can be done to improve?

Nonverbal cues are important -- showing eye contact, leaning forward, nodding or giving affirmations. That means you have to put down your newspaper or iPhone. Look at the other person without doing something else to show your undivided interest. And don't try to hurry him (like some people do by tapping their feet on the ground or fingers on the table). We all know people who tell you to come into their office, but as soon as you start to talk to them, their phone rings and they take the call. Many employees have complained to me about how during one of the most important meetings they have with their supervisor (such as a performance review), the boss allows the phone, other people or some other distraction to interrupt the meeting. And they wonder why the employee doesn't open up. If you are going to listen, give your undivided attention and time.

Many leaders ask me, "What if an employee comes into my office and I just don't have time right then to talk?" Acknowledge the person and then let him know that you want to hear what he has to say, but that this is not the best time and can the meeting be rescheduled for later that day. You have to give a specific time or day to reschedule. Most individuals are okay with this. This same scenario could apply to your personal life -- maybe your partner wants to talk and you are busy with something. It is still important to acknowledge him and let him know you want to hear what he has to say. Can you talk about it in 30 minutes?

Your verbal responses are the other major aspect of effective listening. Use silence as much as possible so that you can really give individuals the time to say what they need to say. For quiet, introverted types, it may take a bit longer. Don't try to anticipate what those people will say and fill in their silences by completing their sentences. Giving the other party space is especially critical when you don't understand that person very well or when the situation is difficult.

Use more reflecting or paraphrasing comments, such as "what I hear you saying is. . . ." Many times, people revert to using more advising responses. That is, we quickly hear what the other person has to say and start giving advice about what he or she should do. However, that person may just want to share views with us without getting advice. If you feel compelled to give advice, at least ask first if it's wanted. When listening to others, it is also helpful to clarify what was said with open-ended questions ("what do you think about . . ."), clarifying questions ("let me see if I am clear, are you saying . . ."). and/or probing questions ("what else have you done in the situation . . .").

We can all improve our listening skills. Think about what you specifically need to improve. Some executives I know keep a note card saying "silence" or "stop interrupting" and they look at before going into meetings with their associates.

Whatever tips you use, know that those around you will greatly appreciate your efforts to actively listen to them.


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