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The Forgotten Art of Listening
By Ed Brodow, CEO, Ed Brodow Seminars, Inc.

Many sales can be closed and many conflicts can be resolved if we learn how to listen as well as we learn to sell.

I was having lunch at a bistro in St. Paul de Vence, a picturesque hill town in the south of France. In my fractured French, I tried to order a bottle of beer.

"Je voudrais une bouteille de biere, sil vous plait." I would like a bottle of beer, I told the waitress.

"In a can," she replied.

"Non," said I, "En bouteille!" In a bottle.

With her hands on her hips and a sneer on her face, she repeated, "In a can!"

Now I was really getting mad. "Not in a can," I insisted. "In a bottle. En bouteille. EN BOUTEILLE!"

She threw her hands up in despair. "Monsieur, IN A CAN!"

"All right," I said. "Have it your way. Give it to me in a can. Anything. Just give me a beer!"

She stormed off and returned with a bottle of Heineken. Heineken, when you say it in French, loses the "H" and sounds like, "In a can." I practically fell off my chair, I was laughing so hard. She thought I was nuts.

The point of the story is a great lesson in selling. We hear mostly what we want to hear, not what the buyer is trying to communicate to us. Many sales can be closed and many conflicts can be resolved if we learn how to listen as well as we learn to sell.

The Catch

The catch is that listening is the forgotten art. We are so busy making sure that buyers hear what we have to say that we forget to listen.

The first indication I had that my education had a hole in it occurred in the Marine Corps. A kindly colonel gave me a bit of advice. "Lieutenant," he said, "you need to learn how to listen." "What?" I replied. Obviously it was going to take more than his counsel to get the point across.

Luckily for me, my next escapade was tailor made. Dun & Bradstreet hired me as a salesperson in an enterprise based upon a new technology called data processing. D&B had just computerized its entire data base of credit information on millions of companies and was now selling information for marketing purposes.

For example, if your company sold ice to Eskimos, D&B could give you a printout of all the Eskimo companies in your market area, with pertinent information such as the number of Eskimos in each company and the names of key decision-making Eskimos. This was cutting-edge stuff back in 1968.

Well, my sales territory was the Canal Street area in New York-the armpit of Manhattan Island. This was the toughest place to try selling door-to-door, which is what I was being under-paid to do. I learned very quickly that the key to success in selling-as it is in negotiating-is keeping your mouth shut and listening to what people have to say.

I discovered that my sales prospects would tell me everything I needed to know in order to make the sale-if I just kept my mouth shut long enough. If I tried to make a flowery presentation, I would be thrown out. But if I let them tell me what their problems were, they would buy anything from me-even ice.

Staying In Shape

It turns out that listening is not a difficult art to master. In fact, it's quite simple. It's similar to what I go through in order to keep physically fit. The easy part of staying in shape is doing all the exercises. The hard part is getting to the gym on a regular basis. The excuses I come up with for not going are amazing. Once I get to the health club, I'm home free.

Learning to listen is the same. The hard part-the equivalent of "getting to the gym"-is shutting up. If you can train yourself to keep your mouth shut most of the time, you will be a great listener and a greater closer.

Listening Tips

Once you have learned how to keep yourself from speaking, the art of asking questions is the shortcut to effective listening. Here are some tips for asking questions:

Ask open-ended questions. Questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no. "How could we do this?" "What do you think?" Your objective is to get the buyer to talk as much as possible.

Don't ask questions that put them on the defensive. For example, "Why?" is intimidating. Don't ask "why?" Ask "how come?"

Ask "What if?" What if we did it this way?

Ask for their advice. "What would you suggest we do to resolve this?" Everyone loves to be asked for advice.

Offer alternatives. "Which way would you prefer?" This demonstrates your respect for the buyer and is a great closing technique.

Ask about their feelings. "How do you feel about this?" People love to have their feelings validated.

Repeat back what they said. "Let me be sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying that...?" This technique will prevent misunderstandings and convince them that you really are listening.

Being a Detective

Well, there it is. Now all you need to do is practice. If you want to watch a role model for all of this, turn on a rerun of a Columbo episode. He's my role-model. I advise all salespeople to think of themselves as detectives.

One more thing. If you get to St. Paul de Vence, do me a favor. Don't be an ugly American. Take whatever they give you.


Ed Brodow is the author of Negotiate With Confidence and negotiation guru on PBS The Business Channel, and motivational speaker presenting customized keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations. He can be reached at 831-372-7270, or

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