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The fifth Habit of highly effective salespeople: Seek first to understand, then to be understood!

“Seeking to understand requires consideration; seeking to be understood takes courage.” [Stephen Covey]

Habit five is based on the simple fact that you can’t expect to have a reasonable, informed conversation, transaction or relationship until you have fully understood the other party.

It goes back to the favourite adage of sales trainers – “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.”

Empathic listening and understanding is an important skill; it doesn’t necessarily come naturally, so you’ll need to concentrate and control yourself to master it.

Picture the classic negatively stereotyped carpet cleaner salesman.  He meets a prospect and begins his sales pitch at full velocity. He hasn’t given the prospect a chance to speak and if he had he’d have realised that they have wood floor all through the house, so a conventional carpet cleaner would have been no use. The prospect, understandably, makes a hasty exit.

If the salesman asked questions to fully understand the prospect, he’d have been able to tailor his pitch to the customer to sell him an alternative option for wooden floors.

The moral of this story is: don’t try to prescribe a solution before you’ve diagnosed the problem. And the only way to do that is to ask questions so that you can understand the situation. Then you can expect to be understood.

Covey isn’t saying that you should interrogate or grill a customer apprentice-style. He says that we should ‘listen with the intent to understand’. This requires ‘empathic listening…that inspires openness and trust’.

In other words, we don’t just seek to understand their exact words but also the hidden meaning, or their emotions behind what they are saying.

Once you’ve mastered the art of listening empathically, you stand a far greater chance of being understood and thus building an effective relationship.

Here’s a couple of steps to get you started:

Look out for emotions

Most people are hugely expressive when talking and it’s easy to miss the hidden meaning. There’s often a huge imbalance between what someone actually says, and what they really mean. Next time you’re watching people have a conversation, have a good look at what emotions are showing up that aren’t expressed in the words themselves.

Be empathic

Empathy is effectively ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’. Next time you have to speak to an audience (even if it’s only one other person) make it empathic. Start your speech by talking about them, and how you understand their problems.

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