When I was 12-years old, my brother brought home from the library “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Judging by the title (and by his reason for reading the book) I thought it was about how to manipulate people to get what you wanted, and therefore somehow sinister. Flash forward 30 years, and working for a large midwest company with customer problems galore and a network of front-line employees without a clue in how to deal with them, I finally got around to reading Carnegie’s “sinister” book. Mind you, I had been placed in position to find a solution, and had read a number of books on customer interaction—on how to sell, how to negotiate, how to problem solve, and how to deal with “difficult” people.
Eventually, I concluded the real problem was with how we as a company communicated with our customers—and with each other. Everyone knew how to talk—senior management, field management, and front-line employees—but nobody knew how to listen. It was little wonder my company had so many customer complaints, and entrenched employee dissatisfaction. Somebody, I don’t recall who, recommended I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, so I finally did.
All the solutions I was looking for—how to sell effectively, how to resolve customer complaints, how to manage and achieve objectives, how to problem solve—were contained in Carnegie’s book. Indeed, many of the “newest ideas” on these matters I had read in any number of books already, and all related back to “How to Win Friends and Influence people.” Carnegie not only had said all it before, he had said it better, and illustrated his points with example after example. Everyone knows how to talk. In my company talk was equated with effective leadership, with being aggressive, and “owning a room,” and with being “a winner.” But who was listening? Apparently no one, from senior management on down to the point of sale, and that was the heart of the problem.
Listening is not passive. Effective listening engages us completely— our senses, our mind, even our heart—and is therefore “active” and more powerful than speaking. It’s the key to learning, and most important of all, to understanding. How can you learn anything if you’re doing all the talking? Indeed, how can you truly understand what someone is saying if all you’re doing is waiting your turn to talk? The leaders we think of as “great” were active listeners—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill. Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” What did it mean, other than the obvious? It meant President Truman was prepared to listen to whatever came his way, and by listening find the solution others (presumably talkers) had missed.
What is active listening? I will tell you what it meant to my company's primary concern, which was eliminating customer complaints. It meant suspending judgement while allowing the customer time to vent his frustration. It meant asking questions, agreeing with customer’s feelings (“Had it happened to me, I would feel the same way”), and apologizing (“This should never have happened; I apologize”). Next, by demonstrating a clear understanding of the problem by summarizing and repeating back what the customer had said. In fact, getting agreement on what the problem actually is, is a key to building trust and problem solving. Lastly, getting agreement in how the problem is to be resolved (repair, replacement, refund, letter of credit). This process, in fact, proved less costly for my company.
The point, and it’s the central message of Carnegie’s book, is people have a need to be understood, a need almost as great as the need to eat and sleep. The nutcase screaming from the rooftop is screaming to be understood, as much as the angry customer at the complaint counter. As humans, we need love and to feel appreciated. The people who love and appreciate us are the people who understand us. What better way is there to impart this feeling in others than to listen actively and thereby demonstrate that you, at least, are one person who truly understands them, what they want, the pain they are feeling, the injustice they have suffered, or the joy they are experiencing. The employees who underwent this training had fewer customer complaints, increased sales performance, less stress, better relations with other employees, and, at home better relations with their spouse and children.