The Forgotten Art of Listening

by Ed Brodow


Ed Brodow, Business Negotiation Expert

I was having lunch at a bistro in St. Paul de Vence, a picturesque hill town in the south of France. In my fractured French, I tried to order a bottle of beer.

"Je voudrais une bouteille de biere, sil vous plait." I would like a bottle of beer, I told the waitress.

"In a can," she replied. "Non," said I, "En bouteille!" In a bottle. With her hands on her hips and a sneer on her face, she repeated, "In a can!"

Now I was really getting mad. "Not in a can," I insisted. "In a bottle. En bouteille. EN BOUTEILLE!"

She threw her hands up in despair. "Monsieur, IN A CAN!"

"All right," I said. "Have it your way. Give it to me in a can. Anything. Just give me a beer!"

She stormed off and returned with a bottle of Heineken. Heineken, when you say it in French, loses the "H" and sounds like, "In a can." I practically fell off my chair, I was laughing so hard. She thought I was nuts.

The point of the story is exactly what I stress in my negotiation presentations. We hear mostly what we want to hear, not what the other person is trying to communicate to us. Many conflicts can be resolved easily if we learn how to listen.

The Catch

The catch is that listening is the forgotten art. We are so busy making sure that people hear what we have to say that we forget to listen.

The first indication I had that my education had a hole in it occurred in the Marine Corps. A kindly colonel gave me a bit of advice. "Lieutenant," he said, "you need to learn how to listen." "What?" I replied. Obviously it was going to take more than his counsel to get the point across.

Luckily for me, my next escapade was tailor made. Dun & Bradstreet hired me as a salesman in an enterprise based upon a new technology called data processing. D&B had just computerized its entire data base of credit information on millions of companies and was now selling information for marketing purposes.

For example, if your company sold ice to Eskimos, D&B could give you a printout of all the Eskimo companies in your market area, with pertinent information such as the number of Eskimos in each company and the names of key decision-making Eskimos. This was cutting-edge stuff back in 1968.

Well, my sales territory was the Canal Street area in New York – the armpit of Manhattan Island. This was the toughest place to try selling door-to-door, which is what I was being under-paid to do. I learned very quickly that the key to success in selling – as it is in negotiating – is keeping your mouth shut and listening to what people have to say.

I discovered that my sales prospects would tell me everything I needed to know in order to make the sale – if I just kept my mouth shut long enough. If I tried to make a flowery presentation, I would be thrown out. But if I let them tell me what their problems were, they would buy anything from me – even ice.

Staying In Shape

It turns out that listening is not a difficult art to master. In fact, it's quite simple. It's similar to what I go through in order to keep physically fit. The easy part of staying in shape is doing all the exercises. The hard part is getting to the gym on a regular basis. The excuses I come up with for not going are amazing. Once I get to the health club, I'm home free.

Learning to listen is the same. The hard part – the equivalent of "getting to the gym" – is shutting up. If you can train yourself to keep your mouth shut most of the time, you will be a great listener and a great negotiator.

Listening Tips

Here are some suggestions for developing your listening skills:

  • Develop the desire to listen. You must accept the fact that listening to others is your strongest weapon. Given the opportunity, the other person will tell you everything you need to know. If this doesn't create desire, I don't know what will.
  • Always let the other person do most of the talking.This is a simple matter of mathematics. I suggest a 70/30 rule. You listen 70% of the time and you talk 30% of the time.
  • Don't interrupt. There is always the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. It isn't, so don't. When you are about to speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary.
  • Learn active listening. It's not enough that you're listening to someone – you want to be sure that they know you're listening. Active listening is the art of communicating to the other person that you're hearing their every word.
  • Ask for clarification if needed. This will clear up any misunderstanding you have.
  • Get used to 'listening' for nonverbal messages – body language. The other person may be communicating with you via body language. You need to decode the message.
  • Ask a question...then shut up. This is a foolproof way to listen. Think of yourself as an interviewer – Barbara Walters! She listens and questions – so should you.

Tips For Asking Questions

Once you have learned how to keep yourself from speaking, the art of asking questions is the shortcut to effective listening. Here are some tips for asking questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no. "How could we do this?" "What do you think?" Your objective is to get them to talk as much as possible.
  • Don't ask questions that put them on the defensive. For example, "Why?" is intimidating. Don't ask "why?" Ask "how come?"
  • Ask "What if?" What if we did it this way?
  • Ask for their advice. "What would you suggest we do to resolve this?" Everyone loves to be asked for advice.
  • Offer alternatives. "Which way would you prefer?" This demonstrates your respect for the other person.
  • Ask about their feelings. "How do you feel about this?" People love to have their feelings validated.
  • Repeat back what they said. "Let me be sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying that...?" This technique will prevent misunderstandings and convince them that you really are listening.

Being A Detective

Well, there it is. Now all you need to do is practice. If you want to watch a role model for all of this, turn on a rerun of a Columbo episode. He's my role-model. I advise all my negotiators to think of themselves as detectives.

One more thing. If you get to St. Paul de Vence, do me a favor. Don't be an ugly American. Take whatever they give you.


Ed Brodow is a keynote speaker and negotiation guru on PBS, ABC News, Fox News, and Inside Edition. He is the author of Negotiation Boot Camp: How to Resolve Conflict, Satisfy Customers, and Make Better Deals (Doubleday). For more information on his keynotes and seminars, call 831-372-7270 or e-mail ed@brodow.com, and visit http://www.brodow.com.



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