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  • Stephen Morse

The Forgotten Art of Listening


If there is one attribute that defines Sales Engineers, from the intern associate up to the Global SVP, is that we are problem solvers.   We take pride in our ability to analyze, synthesize, and solve the conundrum in front of us, whether it’s from technology, an opportunity, or a human.   Indeed the most consistent feedback that is received from SE leaders at my Leadership Black Belt Program around why they love being in the SE craft, is the ever evolving challenges and complexities in problem solving in their role. 


Unfortunately, while this characteristic is undeniably important to what we do, it can actually undermine one of the most important and essential behaviors that makes us successful: Listening.  In the past 5 years, as I've started to intersect my professional leadership practice with contemplative science and Emotional Intelligence disciplines, I've come to the startling realization (starting with myself) that in many respects we have lost the true art of mindful, or active, listening. Not only is this a foundational piece of driving more successful customer engagements, it is the cornerstone of performing as a world class leader, and enabling a world class organization.


So what do I mean by Mindful Listening, you ask? Aren't Sales Engineers after all the masters of discovery and Q&A?


Mindful listening is the act of listening purely for sake of understanding, not for solving or for responding. As Stephen Covey mentions in his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood." So often in discovery calls, we listen only to record the data and cues that will map their challenges, drivers, and opportunities to our solutions. We don’t turn our Slack or phone notifications off, so purpose-built attention distractions happen without fail every 30 seconds. We frequently interrupt our prospects chain of thinking to excitedly interject the fix-it benefits of our solutions. We don't confirm understanding, but rush to our product overviews at the first request. When dealing with internal issues, we quickly solve our employee's concerns from our own repository of extensive knowledge, and ignore the root cause or the emotional reality of an important interaction. 


The problem with these situations is that it is almost impossible to really understand the real situation of who and what you are listening to.  The rush to solve, at the expense of true listening, is not really solving the root cause, or the human cause. This miss is not lost on your prospect or team member, however; of this you can be certain.


Humans are naturally social and empathic creatures; and we communicate as much if not more through non-verbal cues as spoken ones.  The reality is that when we apply our full attention to the art of listening well, not only do we retain the data points better, but we pick up the true nature of the speaker's mental and emotional state, their perspectives on you as a vendor, and the true challenges and nuances of the opportunity or engagement. And the gift of true attention does one thing that is more important than anything else: it builds trust.


The best salespeople, the best Sales Engineers, and the best Leaders are great listeners. It is a gift that can be given at any moment; but in today's age it is increasingly hard to do so, and takes both awareness and discipline. When it is employed, the difference is immediately seen and felt.  Programs such as Search Inside Yourself, the SE Leadership BlackBelt program, and others help you practice and hone this critical and always-available skill.


Choose your measure: win rate, customer lifetime value, employee retention, or happiness.. The gift of true listening brings the appreciation of your prospects, colleagues, associates, friends, partners, family, and anyone else you engage with. The challenge and the reward comes when you recognize that listening and understanding itself is the goal, and not the means.

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