Seek first to understand

July 1, 2004 By    

As much as any of the previous four Habits of Highly Effective Propane Companies, habit number five is an individual skill that requires patience and experience to master. Seek first to understand… then to be understood is a challenging skill to learn – perhaps even more so for successful, hard-charging, independent propane operators who think they have all the answers.

I suggest that by embracing this habit you and your management team will become significantly more effective in achieving your company’s goals.

Diagnose before you prescribe

Doctors do it. Auto mechanics do it. Even pro-pane companies do it. They analyze and diagnose a situation before prescribing a solution.

Customer service responses in the propane business require the skills of an experienced, trained technician who can uncover the cause of the customer’s problem. As an example, a trained service technician would not recommend a certain repair without knowing exactly what caused the problem since replacing a part
without determining if there was a leak could have disastrous effects.

What is expected of service technicians is to be trained first to diagnose the problem before they prescribe a solution. This same fundamental applies to the technique of listening and to our habit number five.

Empathic listening as a skill

All of your people must be skilled at communicating, but it is especially vital for your management team. They interact with the public, customers, employees and trade partners. How trained and equipped are they to really listen? Do they know there are five levels of listening?

The lowest level is listening to ignore, or simply pretending to listen. Often we practice selective listening where we hear what we want to hear. There also is attentive listening where we attempt to focus on the words being spoken.

The highest and most valuable level of listening is termed empathic listening. Empathic listening means the listener not only understands the meaning of the speaker’ points, the speaker knows that the listener understands his key message. This is an extremely powerful position for a listener to be in. Compared to all other levels of listening, empathic listening creates a stronger bond with the speaker because the listener has an agreement that an understanding has taken place. Perhaps an even more valuable benefit of empathic listening is that your perception changes. A new, clearer perception has value to you and your team members who master this skill.

Applications of empathic listening

Consider how this level of listening can be applied in your business. An easy example is in sales. If you discover, through empathic listening, that a prospective new homeowner wants his tank set a certain way at his home, are you not in a superior position than a competitor who is selling his services solely on low price and who does not know the customers wishes?

Consider also negotiating with a vendor. Assume that a particular tank manufacturer’s concerns are in keeping inventory low and leveling production of the its plants. Through empathic listening, the tank representative knows you recognize what is important to them. Doesn’t that put you in a superior position to negotiate terms than other buyers?

What about an employee matter? A key employee has made it known that he or she plans to leave the company, presumably over money. If, through the skill of empathic listening, you determine that the real issue is about flex time due to a very private family manner, are you not more equipped to offer a solution that will keep the employee?

Power of persuasive messages

Once you have gained the higher ground through empathic listening, it is time to make sure your points are crafted in a way that ensures that you are understood. As it relates to this habit, the key is to develop and deliver an effective presentation. It is your responsibility to have your points hit home and be understood. It is a failure of your presentation when the listener does not understand.

An important tip for success is to use the new found perception you gained from empathic listening together with the key issues you heard your speaker address as the primary selling points in your presentation.

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