During the past four weeks, I have visited five Asian countries. When I travel from the Philippines, my home country, to a less-developed country, one of the striking cultural differences I notice is less ability or willingness of sales people to listen to customers. The opposite is true; when I travel to a more developed country, I am always pleasantly surprised at how much better waiters, stewardesses and sales people try to sense what I, the customer, want and serve me better.
Two weeks ago, I asked a university professor from an Asian country his evaluation of a consultant sent to their campus from another Asian country. His answer was one terse word: “useless”. The online evaluation submitted by the counterpart faculty member was a more shocking negative description of the quality of the service they received. Later, I found out that there were several gaps in the process of matching what the client needs and what technical services will be provided.
Last Friday, I was in Singapore having afternoon tea with a management consultant on business excellence. He told me how unclear was his terms of reference in a consultancy service engagement he was entering with an SME (small/medium enterprise) in another Asian country last year. What did he do? Before starting the project, he called up the owner-manager of the SME and clarified precisely what the SME needs and what services he can provide.
There is no doubt that the ability to listen to customers leads to the ability to create more value, both for the customers or buyers (consumer’s surplus = the positive difference between the consumer’s satisfaction, measured as the price she is willing to pay, and the price she actually paid for a good or service) and for the producers or sellers (producer’s surplus = the positive difference between the price of a good or service and its unit production and distribution costs). There is a direct causal link between enterprises’ ability and willingness to listen to customers and the GNP of the national economy. See a previous blog post: “Q3- The Customer is King; But the King is Blind!?”
At the enterprise level, companies stay competitive by listening better to their customers, and by using the knowledge they gain as inputs to their process or product improvement, redesign or innovation. Customer knowledge is the most valuable input to internal organizational learning processes such as business process improvement, R&D or organizational streamlining.
At the lower level of teams and groups, a similar cause-and-effect link operates. Listening is an ingredient in productive group communication. In a previous blog post, “L12- Listening”, I listed several actions that block 100% listening. Let me reproduce them here:
- Mentally prepare what he will say next while the other person is still talking
- Mentally comment or judge what a person is saying
- Recall past experiences, good or bad, about the person talking
- Automatically defend himself when criticized instead of trying to better understand the reasons and background behind the criticism
- Retrieve his past emotions, good or bad, he had on the person talking now
- Fail to listen completely because of an expectation about what the speaker will say
- Lecture on what he knows about a topic even if the other person is not interested or is not asking about it
- Notice or get irritated at the bad grammar, bad logic or bad attitude of the person talking
- Interrupt by saying something when the other person is not yet finished talking
- Enter a conversation with the belief that there is little he can learn from the other person
- Talk very long or give long lectures or monopolize the conversation and as a result the other person has less time to talk
- Think about something else related, or unrelated, to what the person is saying now
- Mentally dismiss whatever the person is saying because of his belief about the low credibility or trustworthiness of the person talking
- Focus more on the emotion of the person talking than on what he is saying
- Answer a question but say so many other extra things unrelated to the question
- Do something else such as read something while the person is still talking
- Get distracted by noise or any other external stimulus
- Etc. etc.
What do you notice? 99% of blocks to listening are internal to the listener!
To fully listen, we must pay 100% attention to the speaker, but at the same time, we must also pay 100% attention to any internal blocks within us. In other words, we must practice simultaneous external attention and internal attention. You may review two bog posts on indigo skill of internal attention: “The Reflective Knowledge Worker” and “L13- Learning How to Learn”.
“200% listening” is the skill of paying full attention to the person speaking while AT THE SAME TIME paying full attention to — and managing — any internal block to listening that may present itself while the speaker is talking. Like the two-faced Roman god, Janus, 200% listening is the practice of simultaneously looking at two worlds, which in this case, are the external world and the internal world.
The second part requires constant practice and constant self-improvement. The second part is parallel to the internal organizational learning processes that a truly customer-oriented company brings itself to do in response to what it senses externally from its customers. There are technologies and tools in customer relationship management, customer surveys, quality management, etc. at the organizational level, but unfortunately there are far fewer parallel tools at the individual and group level.
200% listening is one such tool.
We will touch on a few others in the L Series. In the next blog post, I will describe how internal attention can be used in anger management.
Note that there are embedded links in this blog post. They show up as colored text. While pressing “Ctrl” click on any link to create a new tab to reach the webpages pointed to. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image in this blog post.