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Posted: June 24, 2013

Best of CoBiz: Catch a cue

The dangers of selective listening

Julie Hansen

I was standing in line for coffee the other day when I noticed the enthusiastic barista greeting everyone ahead of me with the same question: "How are you doing today?!" Most people responded with some variation of, "fine." To which he would reply, "Great! I'm glad you're having a fantastic day!" When the person in front of me mumbled a less than enthusiastic "okay," and she was still met with a, "I'm glad you're having a fantastic day!" I sensed that he wasn't really listening. When it came to my turn I decided to check my hunch. When asked how I was, I sighed, "could be better." Sure enough I was commended for having a "fantastic" day.

While this is an extreme example of poor listening, in a goal-oriented society, many of us take occasional shortcuts when it comes to listening. We practice selective listening (responding to what we expect to hear) or partial listening (dipping in and out of a conversation without being fully engaged.) In our haste to tell our story, some people (salespeople especially) even approach listening as the act of "waiting to speak."

Listening is a critical component of any relationship - business or personal. In his book Spin Selling, Neil Rackham proposed that good sellers were not necessarily the best talkers, but they were often the best listeners. The difference between real or "active" listening and "waiting to speak" is best illustrated on stage where an actor's response is dependent upon picking up cues.

When an actor got a part in acting's early days, instead of receiving the entire script, she would get a copy of her "sides:" pieces of the play which included the actor's lines and only a sentence fragment or word of her scene partner's lines to cue her response. She would then memorize her lines without really knowing what she was responding to. Imagine receiving these sides and trying to make sense of your scene.

Your line: "I need to have an answer."
Cue: " the fountain."
Your line: "Charles can't find about this."
Cue: " long."
Your line: "It's decided then."

Arriving at the first rehearsal the actor would be so focused on listening for their cue, they would fail to take in what was actually being said to them. Similarly as sellers we can get so focused on listening for common buyer "cues" that we don't take in the full meaning of what is being said.

The dangers of selective listening are many: What if your prospect doesn't give you the cue you're expecting? What if the cue is non-verbal? What if you aren't paying attention and miss your cue entirely? Your prospect might re-state his response if it's obvious you've missed. Then again, he might just check out and give his business to someone who he feels is really attempting to listen to him.

Active listening takes effort. It requires slowing down and processing what the other person has said before throwing out our lines. Active listening is compelling to watch. Some of film's greatest moments are when an actor is simply listening. The 2006 Best Foreign Language Academy Award winner, The Lives of Others is a great example of this. I encourage you to see it if you get the chance.

Award-winning actor Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi officer in 1984 East Berlin assigned to spy on fellow German citizens by listening to wiretaps that have been placed in their apartment. Scene after scene shows him at his desk listening to private conversations between a couple to whom, simply by listening, he becomes indelibly connected. He is captivated and therefore captivating. The great actress and teacher, Uta Hagen calls it: "listening with your entire being."

We intuitively know when someone is fully engaged and actively listening to us or checked out and waiting for their cue. So how do you make sure you're actively listening?

1. Turn off your filter. Don't anticipate, project or interrupt.
2. Stay present for the entire response--even if you think you've heard it before. Listen for new information.
3. Don't tune out the negative or assume a "false positive" because you really need the sale.
4. Listen to not only what is said, but how it's said.
5. Listen to the whole package. If words seem incongruent with body language or facial expressions, check it out.

Active listening can open us up to new opportunities and insights that may not have otherwise become apparent to us. And as a salesperson, the more you focus on listening, the more you'll start hearing the word "Yes!"

Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at, start a sales conversation at  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Houston, we have a problem! Listening is always important; in sales, with relationships, and especially so in times of crisis. The saga of Apollo 13 was an extraordinary example of how practicing this "quiet" skill can literally make the difference between life and death. Over. By Kevin C. Cook on 2011 07 25 cash gifting programs By John on 2011 07 19
Great article, Julie. I love the ironies of life. The best sales people I know, those making $250k and above are usually highly intelligent introverts. They process conversations, information verbal and non-verbal cues not only consciously, but also subconsciously. Only great listeners can process subconsciously in the moment. What an advantage ... the subconscious mind processes 500 times more information per second than the conscious mind! To your point, great listeners can be great at sales, to them listening goes beyond hearing words, it's more like absorbing ... a bit like a Mr. Spock (from Star Trek) mind meld. By TC North on 2011 07 14
Very funny, Dave! By Julie Hansen on 2011 07 08
I'm sorry, what was that? By David Ess(EveryoneHasABoss) on 2011 07 07
Great points Julie! Paying attention and deep listening seems to be a forgotten art these days. Thanks for your insight. Liz By liz wendling on 2011 07 07
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