It’s the beginning of a new year. A time to look back, make note of the present, and project forward into the future. We look back not to dwell on or in the past but to see how far we have come, look for progress, and hopefully find signs of momentum. We look at the present not as “good” or “bad” but simply as a point in the journey and to recognize the things we are grateful for. Ultimately, we look to the future, our hopes, dreams, and goals.

Some of these reviews bring back memories. The most helpful ones are lessons in what to continue doing, what to do more of, and what to stop doing. For me, one of those memory lessons that continues to have application comes from my last real job interview … in November 1990. (It was originally scheduled for October 31, but I had a concussion and messed up the date. True story, but irrelevant). This memory remains vivid, not because I had a concussion and wrote down the wrong date, not because it was my first foray into office print technology (it wasn’t), or because I met a mentor who would greatly influence my career (which he did). It was memorable for a critical lesson I learned about active listening.

During the interview, I was told, “The territory is a bit underperforming.” Now, what I heard was, “The job is yours.” I completely missed the significance of “underperforming.” A month into the job, I realized that describing the territory as “a bit underperforming” was a gross understatement akin to calling Mike Tyson “a bit aggressive.” This oversight led to a crucial realization: I needed to become a better listener and ask more helpful questions. At the time, my focus was on responding, not understanding. I had received enough sales training to know better. But I would soon have to learn it again.

After several meetings with a key reseller, I thought I understood what the owner wanted — simply to make more money. I mean, after all, I had honed the professional pitch by asking, “If I can offer you a lower price, will you buy from me?” Yes, I was that good! I took his affirmative response as a “sales win,” but it would be months before it made it to the scoreboard. Months passed with no business. During another lunch, he pointed out my mistake. “Brad, I’m not sure you’ve been listening to me.” Ouch! He let me know that while cost savings were important, I had ignored his mention of needing to meet his purchasing person — a detail I arrogantly overlooked.

Looking back, I’m not sure if it was fear or arrogance that had kept me from following his directive. After all, if I met with the purchasing clerk (a previous manager told me never to do that), they might say no. Maybe I thought I was too important to meet with a “clerk.” I’m not sure whether I purposefully omitted that step for either of those reasons or simply because I wasn’t actively listening to gain insight and understanding, or I was merely listening for a “yes.” I’ll share the real reason at the end of the article, and as exciting as that is, resist the urge to jump ahead and keep on reading. 

Active listening isn’t just a technique; it’s a challenging yet vital skill that requires effort, practice, self-awareness, and refined communication abilities. It’s about genuinely understanding and addressing the needs of the client.

The benefits of active listening for sales professionals are immense, as are the penalties for failing to do it. Active listening builds trust, uncovers the true needs of clients, allows for tailored solutions, reduces misunderstandings, and fosters long-term relationships. Active listening involves fully engaging in the conversation, paying close attention to the client’s words, and understanding the underlying messages, verbal and non-verbal.

Here are five tips to become a world-class active listener:

1. Fully focus on the speaker: Be present and eliminate distractions. This means putting away phones, turning off computer screens, and avoiding multitasking. Maintain appropriate eye contact to show interest and engagement.

2. Show that you’re listening: Use non-verbal signals like nods and smiles and verbal affirmations such as “I see” or “Go on” to encourage the speaker.

3. Paraphrase and ask questions: Summarize what you’ve heard to show understanding and ask clarifying questions. This step is where true professionalism shines.

4. Avoid interrupting and judging: Let the speaker finish their thoughts without interjecting and keep an open mind without forming quick opinions or advice.

5. Respond appropriately: Acknowledge the speaker’s feelings and perspectives, and when it’s your turn to speak, respond honestly and clearly.

If you’re ready to take that next step, here are five exercises you can try to hone your listening skills, and ultimately to connect to more people in a way that builds trust. 

1. Role-play with a colleague or friend: Set up mock sales conversations where you can take turns being the prospect and the salesperson. Practice actively listening to each other’s needs, concerns, and questions. Provide feedback to each other on how well you listened and what could be improved.

2. Engage in active listening exercises: Look for online resources or books that offer specific exercises to enhance active listening. These exercises may involve listening to audio clips or engaging in group discussions where you have to actively listen and respond appropriately.

3. Practice mindfulness: Engaging in mindfulness activities can help sharpen your ability to focus and be present in the moment. Consider trying meditation or mindfulness exercises to train your mind to be more attentive and focused during conversations.

4. Seek feedback: Ask for feedback from colleagues, mentors, or even your prospects themselves. After a sales conversation, inquire about how well you listened and if there are any areas for improvement. Constructive feedback can provide valuable insights on where you can enhance your active listening skills.

5. Record and review your conversations: With the consent of your prospects, record your sales conversations and review them later. Pay attention to your listening habits, interruptions, and overall engagement. This self-reflection can help you identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments.

Remember, active listening is a skill that can be honed with practice and conscious effort. By actively incorporating these techniques into your sales conversations, you’ll become a more attentive and effective listener.

Bonus: The real reason I was not a good active listener: I lacked self-confidence, the superpower of active listening. 

Here’s how self-confidence can impact active listening:

1. Openness and receptiveness: When you have self-confidence, you are more likely to approach conversations with an open and receptive mindset. You believe in your abilities and are willing to listen to other perspectives and ideas without feeling threatened or defensive. This allows you to truly absorb and understand what the other person is saying.

2. Reduced self-consciousness: Self-confidence can help reduce self-consciousness, allowing you to focus more on the speaker and their message rather than worrying about how you are being perceived. This enables you to give your undivided attention to the speaker and actively listen to their words and non-verbal cues.

3. Asking questions and seeking clarification: Self-confidence empowers you to ask questions and seek clarification when needed. You are not afraid to admit if you don’t understand something or need further explanation. This helps ensure effective communication and prevents misunderstandings.

4. Empathy and understanding: When you are self-confident, you are more likely to be empathetic and understanding towards others. This enables you to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes, truly listen to their perspective, and respond in a way that acknowledges their feelings and needs.

It’s important to note that self-confidence should not lead to overconfidence or a tendency to dominate conversations. Active listening involves giving equal importance to the speaker and maintaining a balanced approach.

Mastering active listening is a continual learning process that enhances sales effectiveness and builds stronger, more authentic client relationships. It’s about understanding the client beyond just the surface level, leading to more successful and fulfilling sales interactions.

Which of the five tips will you work on this week?  

is executive vice president of InkCycle Inc. He is an industry veteran with more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience. He is an active member of the imaging industry as an author, trainer and speaker. Contact him at broderick@inkcycle.com.