How to Fix a Listening Problem

By Heather Baldwin

A sales manager commented after giving a poorly received presentation that his people had a listening problem. They just didn’t get it. His central challenge, he believed, was getting his people to change, or to fix their listening problem. That sales manager was in for a surprise.

“A great deal of time is wasted when leaders travel down the ineffective path of trying to change others,” says Loretta Malandro, CEO of Malandro Communication, Inc., and author of Say It Right the First Time (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Asking how you can get others to listen better places accountability on what other people do or don’t do, which is a surefire recipe for disaster in a sales presentation. Instead, says Malandro, your focus should be on how you can best say what you want your audience to hear. Or, as the sales manager should have asked after his presentation: How can I make my message clear? Here are three ways.

1. Make sure what you say is what they hear. For example, a client asks about a capability and the presenter says: We can’t do that right now. The fact is three audience members might hear three different things. One might hear that the presenter’s company isn’t as technologically advanced as the competition; another might interpret the response to mean there’s a legal problem with the request; and another might hear that the presenter can’t accommodate the request right now but will be able to in the future.

“If your message is unclear or ambiguous, others will fill in the blanks by making up meaning in their minds,” says Malandro. The fix, she says, is to provide clear, direct and positive messages. Review along the way what people are hearing. Check for clarity with phrases such as: Let’s pause for a second and see if we both agree on…. Finally, check your assumptions by asking: Is that your experience? Is this your understanding?

2. Mark out key points. We all know minds wander. Even the most compelling presentation won’t hold 100% of the audience’s attention for 100% of the time. To make sure audience members are listening when it really counts, use markers to tune them in. Markers are phrases at the beginning of a sentence that cue listeners about the importance of what’s coming next and give their minds the second or two they need to adjust and listen in a directed way. Here are some good examples of markers:

 What is most important to recognize is….
 You should anticipate one critical change….
 Here is the most important thing for you to remember….

“In the absence of marking out critical points, the mind will either treat everything as equal or make up what is important,” says Malandro. She goes on to caution against overusing this tool, however. “If you mark everything as critical, nothing will be critical,” she says. Use markers sparingly.

3. Solve the right problem. One of the most common communication problems is trying to solve a problem before you understand it. That’s especially true in sales when you have an array of solutions and need to make quota. Taking the time at the beginning of a presentation to agree on the problem you’re trying to solve is invaluable, however. “The mere act of mutually agreeing on the outcome or problem forces critical thinking and analysis,” observes Malandro. “A lot of time is wasted when people are solving different problems or the wrong problem.”

Think you know for certain what the problem is and don’t want to waste any of your allotted half-hour presentation confirming it? Go back to Malandro’s point about checking assumptions and confirm the challenge. If you’re right, great! You’ll demonstrate you’ve been paying attention and you might even learn some new details about the problem you didn’t know previously. If you’re wrong, you’ll catch it early and can redirect your presentation accordingly.

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