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Why we should all stop talking and start listening

[Image courtesy of Ky at Flickr Creative Commons]

“You’re a very good listener,” said somebody to me once at a networking event. 

Not really, I thought mischievously. I’m just too polite to interrupt.

And without so much as a pause to let me agree or disagree – or even bask in the warm glow of the compliment – he resumed his flow and continued uninterrupted for another 10 minutes.

Which, I suppose, proved his point.

But to be fair to him, it was pretty interesting. He was talking about the psychology of marketing, and how choice has always been held to be a good thing.

In practice, however, most people can’t cope with lots of choice. Widen it too much and you reach a tipping point where they feel confused. More often than not, they make a random decision, or even no decision at all.

Dancing the conversational two-step

The paradox of choice is a whole other story, and one I’ve talked about before.

What was really interesting for me in this particular instance was watching people interact at the networking event from a conversational standpoint. The talkers, the listeners, the half-and-halfers. Some people looking engaged, others on the verge of boredom. Animation and frustration.

Conventional wisdom says that in these situations, it’s best to be a listener, as it gets the other person to open up and creates rapport. The problem with that approach is that if everybody listens, nobody talks. The opposite applies as well, of course.

The most successful participants were those who listened actively (i.e. not just nodding and saying ‘uh huh’ every so often). They asked relevant questions or sought out more detail. They got into the flow, and danced the conversational two-step without treading on their partner’s toes.

And that’s a pretty rare accomplishment.

Too loud and not so clear

Getting out of transmit mode is difficult for all of us, either personally or professionally. There’s nothing we like to talk about as much as ourselves or our business.

And if you pick apart just about any marketing mishap, and you’ll see that it was the result of too much talking and not enough listening. Or inside-out thinking, if you prefer.

Ryanair’s recent mega-SNAFU is a good example. They had a problem (a backlog of pilot leave) which they solved by creating another (widespread flight cancellations, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers). Inside out par excellence. 

Insult and injury were piled on top of each other, and it seemed at one point as if they’d never pull out of their PR spiral dive.

Take a wider look around, the talking-but-not-listening problem is everywhere.

Tesco launched a new grocery website recently that baffled regular shoppers like me who’d become accustomed to the user-friendliness of the old one.

On the new site, seeing your favourites on one page is no longer an option, so you have endless fun randomly clicking on page numbers at the bottom of the paged list (but not at the top, in another UI oversight) to find organic green beans or Marmite. Instead of using your browser’s search function to locate it in seconds.

Apple launched iOS 11 to much fanfare, but its Airplay 2 doesn’t work with much of the hardware out there – including the ubiquitous Sonos speakers that all serious music lovers seem to have nowadays. How could they have committed such a serious oversight?

There’s discontent in the Sonosphere at the moment, and it looks like they won’t get much satisfaction until sometime in the new year. Just as well I’m a late adopter. 

The bottom line is that the talking-not-listening problem results in processes that are designed around companies, not customers.

Not the best move.

The sound of silence

I’m sure you’ve heard the old line about having two ears and one mouth, and using them in proportion. The trouble is, most of us don’t.

My friend at the networking event may have thought I was a great listener, but really it depends on the circumstances.

A couple of months ago, I forgot the ears/mouth rule on a briefing conference call and found myself waxing lyrical about a client’s needs at excessive length.

When I ran out of steam, there was a pregnant pause. At which point I realised my mistake and quickly bounced the ball back into their court with an open question. By talking less and listening more, I discovered what their needs really were.

And so did they.