“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” — Ralph Nichols
Customer service involves interacting with customers, positively engaging with them and having a dialogue. A dialogue involves at least two people and the conversation that happens means that you have to listen as well as speak. This is even more important if you are having that dialogue over the telephone where you can not see the reaction to the words that you are saying on the other persons face. This is whereactive listening comes into its own. By the way, active listening is one of the key skills that is needed and often used in change work. It is also used in conflict resolution and often in tense situations such as where there is a hostage. I would also suggest that the best doctors and consultants in the medical profession use active listening techniques – though most don’t!. It was one of the courses that I was able to participate in when I worked in the Met Police, which initially sparked my interest in it.
Listening is one of the most fundamental components of interpersonal communication skills. Listening is not something that just happens (that is hearing), listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to listen to and understand the messages of the speaker, not just the words and phrases that the person utters.
So what is active listening?
Listeners should remain neutral and non-judgmental, this means trying not to take sides or form opinions, especially early in the conversation. Active listening is also about patience – pauses and short periods of silence should be used where you can reflect on the words spoken to you. I would encourage you to try a little experiment right now.
Hang on a moment!
Stop reading this and go find someone to talk to. But before you go, remember this, during the conversation, when there is a pause and the other person expects you to immediately respond, pause, just for a moment and see what happens. Humans by our very nature can not cope with silence in a dialogue. Those long pregnant pauses drive people nuts. People fill up those silent elements in dialogue. But it is those pauses, that also demonstrate that you can be listening and actively so. When you have tried it, come back for the rest of the article.
You came back, great. Let’s continue.
Listeners should not be tempted to jump in with questions or comments every time there are a few seconds of silence. Active listening involves giving the other person time to explore their thoughts and feelings, they should, therefore, be given adequate time for that. Did you find that you were experiencing a heightened sense of engagement with the other person? Great if you did. If you did not, don’t worry. It takes time and practice to get it.
Active listening also requires listeners to paraphrase what they’ve heard and restate it out
loud to make sure the other party understands what was said, the meaning and intention of the words spoken. At its heart is a three-step communication technique helps ensure both sides fully grasp the issue and both fully understand it.
Step 1. Really listen. No, really really, really listen.
Most of us are passive listeners, multitasking and surface scanning the dialogue as someone speaks. We get the gist of something and assume that’s good enough. it is not. Active listening requires that you are not distracted or inattentive; you must focus on the other person and try to comprehend everything they’re saying. Listen for emotions as well as facts. Try to hear why the customer is having a problem, what they are feeling and how they are presenting the information. These details can shape the entire interaction. If it seems like the issue is complex or includes several parts, it may be helpful to take notes while you’re listening. This applies to both the business, personal, social and counselling worlds.
Step 2. What is the key pieces of information and the feelings they have?
Now that you’ve done your best to fully engage in the listening process, you can begin to process the information. Review what you’ve heard — both the facts and the associated emotions — and list the key pieces. If you do not have all of the information you need to really understand the facts and the other person’s feelings, now is the time to ask the right questions. What are the right questions? For starters, focus on them, not just the problem. By understanding their perceived state of mind, you can provide the right answers to help meet their needs and expectations.
A good example of active dialogue is where you will rephrase a piece of information already provided with a confirming question attached. In effect, you are playing back part of the dialogue with a further qualifying question.
Step 3. Finally, Mirror back to the speaker.
Now you need to replay everything — both facts and emotions — back to the other person in a summary of the issue and problem they have
While active listening and its key parts — focusing, comprehending and reflecting —
are great for all areas of life especially in the change work arena; one of the areas that can really benefit from it, is telephone technical support. What does active listening do for technical support?
You solve the person’s problem, not just the problem itself!
Active listening puts you in the customer’s shoes and focuses your attention on them.
If you’re only paying attention to the problem, you weren’t actually listening and may inadvertently come across as condescending or rude. You may still fix the problem, but you have irritated your customer in the process.
You can build relationships with people, even over the phone.
Active listening in technical support shows that you care about and truly value your customers’ feelings and time. You want to really help the customer, rather than just fix the problem at hand. Too often I hear of the fact that the technical agent may fix the initial issue that the person has, but does not resolve the overall problem.
So the next time, you have a problem and phone someone for support and advice, see if they are using active listening skills to try to help you. The next time you have to visit the doctors, see if they are actively listening to your problem, or surface skimming the conversation and prejudging the outcome. You will be surprised how few people really, truly, actively listen.
I leave you with the following quote. One day, I am going to ask someone to take that bit of fluff out their ears and really listen!
“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh