On a recent episode of Shark Tank, a co-founder of the sex tech company LoveSync walked away without a deal. But it wasn't because of anything he said or did. It was because of what he didn't do: listen.

"You're so in love with your idea that you're tripping over yourself to express your love again and again, and you really haven't adequately answered any objection that's been raised here," Barbara Corcoran said before she went out on the deal. "The entrepreneurs that don't listen never make it -- I don't care what kind of product they have." 

Although the cost of failing to listen isn't always as obvious as in this example, it's hard to deny that listening is critical in creating and running a successful business. And yet for such an important skill, it's often left off the syllabus in school or training programs.

What differentiates good listeners from people who simply hear? Here are seven things I've noticed over time. 

1. They self-regulate.

Especially in charged conversations, it can be tempting to toss out a knee-jerk remark or put up a defensive stance. Good listeners moderate strong reactions to encourage the other person to keep talking openly and honestly -- both in the moment and in future conversations.  

2. They treat all perspectives as valid. 

Is a piece of feedback "right" or "wrong"? Even without knowing the specific situation, I can confidently say that the answer is neither. When someone talks about their perspective on a given issue, that's their experience -- and by definition, all experiences are valid. Might they be lacking context? Of course. Might you disagree with their conclusion? Absolutely. But great listeners treat all perspectives as data worthy of consideration. 

3. They check for understanding.

Communication is only effective if both parties understand what the other is trying to say. With that in mind, great listeners take the time to restate the other person's argument to confirm their understanding. This often sounds like "So what I'm hearing you say is X -- did I get that right?" or "Could I just summarize what I heard you say so I can make sure we're on the same page?"

4. They ask clarifying questions. 

Related to the above, when a good listener hears something they don't understand, they proactively ask clarifying questions instead of shrugging their shoulders and moving on. Probing questions can also help the speaker clarify their thinking, which is especially valuable for verbal processors. 

5. They listen with their eyes as well as their ears.

According to the Harvard Business Review, approximately 80 percent of communication comes from nonverbal cues. Great listeners don't just pay attention to the words being spoken -- they also observe the person's tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, and use these observations to inform their understanding.

6. They make sure everyone is heard.

In group settings, great listeners act as facilitators and monitor the airtime to make sure everyone gets a relatively equal share. If someone hasn't had the chance to speak, they either prompt them in the moment ("Enki, I would love to hear what you think") or seek out their perspective in another format (for example, asking them to write an email if they're more comfortable with written versus verbal communication).   

7. They note what's not said. 

Perhaps most important, great listeners also pay attention to what's being glossed over or left out entirely. Although you'll have to tread lightly to avoid unwelcome prying, prompting the person with a simple "You know, I feel like there's something you're not saying" can open up the conversation and help people overcome reticence -- knowing that they're safe to do so.  

Published on: Jan 30, 2020
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