One of the most important skills any of us can learn is how to be a good listener. It’s an interesting paradox that, in order to be known as a great conversationalist you must first become a great listener. And, one of the four foundational skills of the customer service masters is to be a good listener. I’ve compiled my list of the top 10 ways to be a good listener.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lose distractions. Put down your smart phone, close your laptop, close your book, and lose the daydream. Think about how it makes you feel when you’re trying to talk with someone who’s texting or Facebooking. Really, it’s just rude.
  2. Don’t finish thoughts or sentences for the other person. You really don’t know what the other person is thinking or is going to say. My wife and I are very close. We have a great relationship. We’ve found that, as close as we are, when we finish sentences for each other, we only get it right about half the time. If two people who are as close as we are only get it right about half the time, imagine how often you’ll fail when you finish a sentence or thought for your end user or your customer. Don’t do it.
  3. Don’t get defensive. If the other person is sharing information about you or your performance, it’s easy to get defensive if they’re saying something with which we don’t agree. It’s a sign of maturity and emotional intelligence to take it in, reflect on the information, and thank the other person for their feedback. You never know, they may have a couple of good points that could help you become a better person. When we get defensive, it’s easy to overlook good feedback.
  4. Paraphrase what you just heard. Say something like, “Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand what you meant.” Then, paraphrase what was just said, using your own words, and ask if that’s what the other person meant.
  5. Listen to understand, not respond. This is the great wisdom of Stephen Covey’s habit number five in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Most of us listen with the intent to respond. While the other person is speaking, we’re perhaps listening closely, but we’re formulating our response. How will you listen differently if your objective is to truly understand the meaning of what the other person is saying and not just to prepare your response?
  6. Make good eye contact. This means looking the other person in the eye, but it doesn’t mean staring them down! There’s a fine line between maintaining good eye contact and being creepy. Here’s how to do it right: Mirror the actions of the person with whom you’re speaking. If they look away, you should look away. Of course, don’t mirror them exactly or they’ll think you’re mocking them, but use their eye contact as a means of gaining clues as to their level of comfort. Wait a couple of seconds before changing your eye contact and eventually you’ll develop a rhythm in the conversation.
  7. Allow natural pauses in the conversation. In our CNN world, we’ve come to believe that there should be no dead air. Our conversations become rapid-fire events with no room to breathe. Toastmasters International talks about the importance of the stately pause. I often wonder if conversations a hundred years ago were more relaxed than they are today. Give your conversation room to breathe, time to process what was just said.
  8. Be honestly empathetic. Try to imagine how the other person feels. Put yourself in their shoes. Avoid trite clichés such as “I know exactly how you feel”, because you don’t know exactly how the other person feels. Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation and it’s certainly okay to mention that. Just remember, when you’re listening to another person, your fellow human being, it’s not about you, it’s about them. Don’t steal their thunder!
  9. Keep an open mind. Tom Kida, in his book Don’t Believe Everything You Think, says we seek to confirm rather than deny our pre-existing beliefs. If someone says something that conflicts with what you believe, make a conscious effort to keep an open mind to new information or a different way of looking at things.
  10. Stop talking! When we’re talking, the only things we hear are things we already know. When we listen, we gain new information, new insights, and new ways of looking at things. I work with a vendor who is very good at what he does, but I frequently have to tell him to stop talking so he can hear what I have to say about a particular project or problem. Just stop talking. When you do talk, ask lots of open-ended questions and give the other person the gift of listening.

Follow these 10 rules for being a good listener and you’ll learn lots of new information and gain a reputation as a great conversationalist, along with lots of happy customers.

For More Ideas on How to Improve Communication and Customer Service Skills

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