Attentive Listening Skills

Great listening doesn’t come easily. It’s hard work. There are two major types of listening skills: attentive and interactive. The following attentive listening skills will help you uncover the true messages your counterparts are conveying.

    1. Be motivated to listen. Knowing that the person with the most information is usually the one in control of a negotiation should give you an incentive to be a better listener. It is wise to set goals for the amount and type of information you hope to receive from your counterpart. The more you can learn, the better off you will be.
    2. If you must speak, ask questions. To get specific, useful information and uncover your counterpart’s needs and goals, you have to continually ask questions. By moving from broad to narrow questions, you will eventually acquire the information you need to make the best decisions.

  1. Be alert to nonverbal cues. Although it is critical to listen to what your counterpart says, it is equally important to understand the attitudes and motives behind what he says. A negotiator doesn’t usually put his entire message into words. For example, a person’s verbal message may convey conviction while his gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice convey doubt.
  2. Let your counterpart tell her story first. Many salespeople have learned the value of this advice the hard way. One printing salesperson told us how he had once tried to impress a new prospect by focusing on his company’s specialized work in two-color and four-color printing. The prospect responded that it seemed this printing company was probably not the right one for her, since her primary need was for one-color printing. The salesperson replied that, of course, his company did quality one-color work as well, but the prospect had already made up her mind. Had the salesperson let the prospect speak first, he would have been able to tailor his presentation to her needs.
  3. Do not interrupt when your counterpart is speaking. Interrupting a speaker is not good business. It is rude and, furthermore, may prevent the speaker from revealing information that could be valuable later in the negotiation. Even if your counterpart says something you think is inaccurate, let him finish. You’ll find that you can sometimes get the most vital information in a negotiation when your counterpart disagrees with you or shares something that surprises you. If you really listen, rather than interrupt, you will gain valuable insights.
  4. Fight off distractions. Interruptions and distractions tend to prevent negotiations from proceeding smoothly and may even cause a setback. When you are negotiating, try to create an environment in which you can think clearly and avoid interruptions. Employees, peers, children, animals, and phones can all distract you and force your eye off the goal.
  5. Do not trust your memory. Whenever someone tells you something in a negotiation, write it down. It is amazing how much conflicting information can come up later. The ability to refresh your counterpart’s memory with facts and figures shared in an earlier session will earn you a tremendous amount of credibility and power. Writing things down may take a few minutes longer, but the results are well worth the time.
  6. Listen with a goal in mind. If you have a listening goal, you can look for words and nonverbal cues that provide the information you are seeking. When you hear revealing bits of information, such as your counterpart’s willingness to concede on the price, you can expand on that information by asking more specific questions.
  7. Look your counterpart in the eye. Research has shown that, at least in Western culture, a person who looks you in the eye is perceived as trustworthy, honest, and credible. If you want your counterpart to be willing to negotiate with you again in the future, you have to convince her that you have these qualities. So look her in the eye and give her your undivided attention. This will also provide you with an added advantage. Many experienced negotiators have found that with careful attention, they can tell what a counterpart is really thinking and feeling. What message are your counterpart’s eyes sending? Is she lying or telling the truth? Is she nervous and desperate to complete the negotiation? Careful attention and observation will help you determine everything your counterpart is saying—verbally and nonverbally. Every once in a while a participant will tell us, “I have had a counterpart look me right in the eye and tell me a bold-faced lie.” It happens. The good news is that most negotiators are quick learners, and when it does happen, they put safeguards in place to guarantee honesty in future negotiations.
  8. React to the message, not the person. It is helpful to understand why your counterpart says the things he says and does the things he does. Elaine Donaldson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says, “People do what they think they have to do in order to get what they think they want.” Each counterpart in a negotiation is trying to change the relationship according to his best interests. If your counterpart says or does something you don’t understand, ask yourself, would you do the same thing if you were in his shoes? If you find it necessary to react negatively to a counterpart’s words or actions, make sure you attack the message, not the person.
  9. Don’t get angry. When you become angry, you turn control over to your counterpart. Anger does not put you in a frame of mind to make the best decisions. Emotions of any kind can hinder your ability to listen effectively. Anger, especially, interferes with the problem-solving process involved in negotiations, since when you are angry, you tend to shut out your counterpart. You might want to use gestures that imply you are angry just to create an effect, but make sure you are really retaining control of your emotions. Remember the classic scene the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made at the United Nations when he stood in front of television cameras, pounded his shoe on a table, and yelled, “We will bury you”? He seemed to be angry, but was he? Years later, it came out that while he was pounding his shoe on the table, he still had shoes on both feet! But his gesture certainly made an impression.
  10. Remember, it is impossible to listen and speak at the same time. If you are speaking, you are tipping your hand and not getting the information you need from your counterpart. Obviously, you will have to speak at some point so your counterpart can help you meet your goals, but first learn your counterpart’s frame of reference. Armed with that information, you will be in control of the negotiation. And when you are in control, you are the one in the driver’s seat—you are acting and your counterpart is reacting.

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