Question – think back to the last several days of Zoom calls and phone calls.  How often do you glance at your phone, check emails, look something up in a browser, etc. while you are on a call? 

I imagine nearly all of us are guilty of that.  The current virtual world we are in makes it so much easier to be distracted than if we were meeting in person. 

Of course, in this short-attention span world, even in person we are doing a poor job focusing on our interactions with others.  We apparently can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds, which is 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish!

How many of your business meetings last 8 seconds?  Right. 

But it’s not just our attention span that’s causing problems, it is also our poor listening habits.  According to Psychology Today, “only about 10 percent of us listen effectively.”  When we aren’t distracted by notifications on our many devices, we are typically only listening enough to plan our response – not to actually understand what the other person is saying.

Rather than living in our own heads, planning out the ideal response, or focusing on likes and tweets, we should all be working harder to break our bad listening habits.  This is especially true if you are a small business owner. 

Consider these studies related to listening to your employees and your customers:

  • A 2018 UK study found that 82 percent of employees have ideas about how their company could improve sales, but about a third don’t believe their company listens to their ideas.
  • A SHRM blog post shared survey results showing that 64 percent of professional workers in the U.S. and Canada cited “leaders making decisions without seeking input” as their biggest problem. Even if you as a business owner think you are open to employee input, consider whether your employees would agree with you.
  • Research indicates that “96 percent of unhappy customers will not complain when they’re dissatisfied. Of that group 91 percent will silently take their business elsewhere permanently.”  Business owners should make it a point to listen carefully to their customers to make sure that they don’t put themselves into this situation.
  • Another study indicates that 86 percent of customers are happy to pay more for another provider if they will receive a better customer experience. On the other hand, “91 percent of customers will remain with a provider after a good customer service call.”

Based on just this short list of studies, it seems clear that paying closer attention and ramping up our listening skills as a business owner will yield great benefits.  Listening to our employees and customers could offer up new ideas for products or services or improvements to existing ones, provide a greater opportunity to ensure repeat business, and increase our ability to upsell more products to customers.  Improved listening skills can increase customer and employee loyalty and revenue as a result of all we learn.

So how do we improve our listening skills?  Here are some tips:

Engage in active listening.  That means not just hearing what someone is saying but actively paying attention to their mood, their body language, their tone of voice and all the other elements that help you connect with the person speaking to you.  Most of us can tell when someone’s not really listening, and then we are less motivated to keep up our end of the conversation as well.  Set aside your devices, make eye contact and listen without planning out your responses.

Practice on strangers.  When you speak to people who you already know, it’s easy to assume you know what they’re going to say and tune out more than you should.  It’s much harder to do that when engaging with a stranger.  Admittedly, that’s a tad harder to do in a pandemic, but try to take advantage of opportunities – with the cashier at the grocery store or on a Zoom networking event.  According to the book You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy, conversations with strangers have been shown to increase our happiness as we manage uncertainty and listen for things we have in common.

Consider your response carefully.  If you are really listening, then give the speaker plenty of time to share their thoughts.  Ask “why” questions or have them clarify their statements.  “Tell me more about why this is important to you.”  This is especially important if you disagree with the person or they are sharing negative feedback about your company.  Rather than being defensive, seek to truly understand their concern from their perspective. 

Avoid response bias.  Many times, we know what we want to hear, so when we ‘listen’ we just pull out the nuggets that support our opinion, rather than truly listening to the whole conversations.  If you are only talking to customers or employees to confirm what you already know, then you’re missing out on an opportunity to learn from the discussion.  This is especially important if you are doing research to validate a new idea.  Don’t just ask “don’t you love my new idea?” or focus on the positive comments only.  The negative feedback is just as important, if not more.

Seek out diverse opinions.  It can be easy to surround yourself with people like you who also share your opinions and biases.  However, there is value in seeking out the perspective from others who are not like you – whether that’s politically, demographically or geographically.  We all form our opinions based on the world right around us, so learn more from those whose version of their world is different from yours.

Take action on what you learn.  As a small business owner, you have the advantage of being closer to both your employees and your customers than a Fortune 500 CEO can be.  Take advantage of that – and what you can learn from listening – so that you can learn new ways to address problems, take advantage of new opportunities, and increase loyalty among your employees and customers.  While the big companies are desperately trying to track down feedback with surveys and net promoter scores, you can be having an actual conversation, which provides so much more depth and breadth than a single number ever could.

Make active listening your new superpower for 2021!

 

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