What is the single most effective persuasion technique and why is it so easy to master? It’s not one of the six influence principles you’re likely familiar with: Reciprocity, Commitment/Consistency, Social proof, Authority, Liking, or Scarcity, though it makes each of them more potent.
It’s the ability to intensely and genuinely listen – not for a few sentences, not for a few minutes, but for the duration of an entire conversation. That’s it.
Intent and earnest listening is a skill everyone can enhance
Understand To Be Understood
“Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood”, Steven Covey
You will never maximize your effectiveness as a leader, negotiator, salesperson, parent or spouse if you do not fully understand the frame of reference, biases and potential misinformation rattling around in the head of the other party(ies) with whom you are communicating.
The most effective way to determine what the other party is thinking is to listen. Simple. Easy. Obvious. Yet many entrepreneurs, with their bias toward action and strong willed personalities, consistently do a poor job of listening.
Discover The Discovery Process
The U.S. legal system has long understood that the best decisions are made when all parties are apprised of the salient facts of a particular case. Thus, the discovery phase of legal proceedings has been institutionalized to ensure that the defense and the prosecution share key information.
The listening tactics outlined below are akin to such a discovery process. Your goal is to discover the true intent and basis of the other party’s positions, opinions and frame of reference, before you share your thoughts.
Step 1: Intense, Friendly Focus
When was the last time someone really gave you their undivided attention? Such discussions are so rare that you might not even recall your last highly focused conversation.
Even though it is a rarely utilized skill, intent listening isn’t difficult, if you keep the following points in mind:
· Conduct focused discussions in an environment that will minimize potential distractions and interruptions – take a walk, avoid sterile conference rooms and hectic office environments
· If sitting, position yourself in a power-neutral manner, next to each other, rather than across a desk or table, which is traditionally a more confrontational position
· Smile often and offer liberal eye contact (but avoid staring) and be generous with affirmative head-nods and non-verbal affirmations (uh huh, OK, makes sense, got it, understood, etc.)
· Put your phone away to ensure you do not robotically reach for it to during the conversation (this is sadly hard for me to do)
Step 2: Rewind and Repeat
After you give the other party your focused attention, ensure they understand that you understand. However, as you summarize, be careful to not interpret the other party’s message and do not assign value judgments to their words (implicitly or otherwise). Your goal at this stage is to simply clarify that you properly understand the other party’s content and intent.
Step 3: Give Me More, Give Me More
This is the step that comes naturally to con men, therapists and clergymen – usually not to entrepreneurs. After you have confirmed that you properly understand the other party’s message, invite them to continue. Let them know that you are eager to hear more.
Traditional conversations do not work in this fashion. In most dialogues, one party states their opinion and then waits for the other party to comment, either in affirmation or a rebuttal. Your goal is to break this pattern and encourage the other party to share all their thoughts, before you respond.
When they pause to think of more to say, remain silent. Fight the urge to turn the discussion into the conventional conversational back-and-forth banter: the you talk, I talk, you talk, I talk loop. Short-circuiting this pattern can be difficult, especially if you disagree with what the other party is saying. However, resist the natural impulse to refute their statements and encourage them to continue expressing their thoughts, unabated.
If you are concerned that your silence might be misconstrued as agreement, punctuate your listening with brief comments, such as, “This is helpful information, I now better understand your point of view” or “I appreciate you sharing that with me.”
Step 4: Let The Well Run Dry
Indulge the other party – let them talk until they have nothing meaningful left to say. Continue to battle the urge to counter what you are hearing. Remember, before you react and interject your thoughts, it is key that you first fully understand the other party’s position to avoid any false premises.
This is the stage that often results in the most meaningful insights, those difficult to share messages that go to the heart of the other person’s motivations, fears, anxieties, etc. This is especially true if the conversation addresses a contentious subject, the other party may initially hold back commenting on its most inflammatory aspects. Your goal is to ensure the other party expresses everything they deem relevant.
Step 5: Clarify Before You Crucify
OK, the well has run dry and the discovery process is almost over. The last step is to summarize and interpret what the other party has communicated. One way to preface this phase of the conversation is to say, “Here’s what I hear you saying… did I hear you correctly?”
If they respond in the affirmative, you can now share your thoughts in a meaningful and highly impactful manner. In addition, your insights into the other party’s mindset will result in a higher probability of reaching a mutually satisfying resolution. Simply by hearing the other person’s perspective, even if you do not agree with it, will typically enhance your empathy. Higher empathy increases the odds of achieving a fair and just outcome.
Don’t Become An Amateur Psychologist
Often, the discovery process will uncover areas of compromise that were not evident to you at the outset of the discussion. However, even if you experience no epiphanies during the discovery process, at least the balance of your discussion will be grounded in a firm understanding of the other party’s positions.
Keep in mind that you’re looking for insights that will help you better understand the other party’s point of view. You’re not attempting to diagnose the psychological underpinnings of their personality (even professional clinicians struggle with this difficult task) and your not making value judgements regarding the strength (or lack thereof) of the other person’s arguments.
Also bear in mind that these tactics are appropriate for a small and distinct subset of your daily discussions. Most conversations are best served with a quick, give-and-take dialog. However, discussions which might be contentious or important situations in which you do not have a firm understanding of the other party’s positions and you want to influence their future actions (e.g., sales, negotiating, counseling a child or friend, etc.), are opportunities to utilize these listening tactics. In the right circumstances, this focused approach will facilitate discussions that lead to mutually satisfying outcomes.
The secret to networking, selling, negotiating (or being a good friend, spouse or parent) is simple. All you have to do is actively listen and create an environment in which the other party is comfortable sharing all of their relevant thoughts, before you verbalize your opinions or counter-positions.
It’s true that the six persuasion principles are potent. However, you’ll never harness their full power, if you don’t first listen. Even the Authority principle will be of limited usefulness, if you haven’t taken the time to understand your audience. Thus, in any conversation in which you want to influence the other party, remember that a truly wise person uses few words.