Listening skills

Listening skills - Questioning skills - Sales

Sales Conversations that Flow: The Art of NOT Asking Questions

I love sales questions. In my training classes, I urge B2B salespeople to ask more questions, and I teach them ways to get the buyer to open up about their problems, opportunities, challenges and risks, and to get mutually involved in devising a solution. Questions are one of the most powerful sales tools you have.

But sometimes you can fall in love with a tool and overuse it, losing effectiveness and efficiency as a result. What’s the problem with too many questions? You run the risk that the buyer may feel too “led” or even manipulated, or at least not feel like they have been listened to. And, because you are so good at using questions to uncover what you’re looking for, you may close out opportunities to discover what you’re not looking for.

The most efficient and effective sales call I ever conducted took place in a boardroom in Atlanta where I met with a company’s SVP of Worldwide Sales and several of his direct reports. I had barely set the stage with my value proposition when he cut me off: “Let me tell you what I want”, he said, and launched into a 60-minute soliloquy about his sales force and its struggle to adapt to a changing market. My participation consisted mainly of nodding, interjecting an occasional probe, and trying to take good notes. By the time he was done, George had answered every question in my sales call plan, I had checked off every one of my call actions, and we struck a deal on my largest sale to date.

If there is such a ratio as revenue per word spoken, it was easily the best sales call I’ve ever made. It flowed from start to finish, and the best part was, the sale was completely the customer’s idea! It reminded me of Napoleon’s advice to “Never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake”, except in this case it’s “Never interrupt the buyer when they are selling themselves.” By staying out of his way, I let George have my way.

That call was extreme, of course, but it is definitely worthwhile to strive to talk less and sell more. Good salespeople accomplish this by asking more questions; great salespeople do it by asking fewer but better questions, and by going beyond questions to achieve a similar flow.

How does achieving that flow help you sell? First, people like to talk about themselves, so once you get them started, you may create a momentum of self-disclosure which can produce broader and deeper insight into their needs. Second, people like to feel important, so by being in charge of the conversation (or at least feeling like they’re in charge) can make them feel good. Finally, when they tell you the story you want them to hear, they own it, and they’re much more likely to stick to their commitments.

How to encourage conversational flow

Conversational flow doesn’t just happen; you can stimulate your customer’s willingness to talk by what you do before and during the call.

Before the call

Avoiding too many questions during the call does not mean skipping questions altogether during your preparation. The research and planning you do will help earn the customer’s trust without which they won’t open up. Besides, it’s the only way to know if the customer’s conversation is producing the answers you need. By knowing what you need from the conversation, you will have all these mental hooks on which to organize the incoming information.

It also does not mean that you should strive for a stream-of-consciousness type of flow, in which you get the customer to talk about anything that enters their mind. The most effective sales conversations have a particular structure—even if it’s not obvious. That flow is the SCR story structure: They begin by describing their situation, bringing out their conflicts, and arriving at a resolution.

During the call

There are two general ways to encourage the customer to take control of the conversation and run with it. First, you motivate them to talk and set the frame by carefully planning your call opening, and then you use following skills to encourage and channel the flow.

The first few minutes of the sales call are crucial to achieving conversational flow. Your goal is to get the customer eager to talk about what you want them to talk about. For this, you have three tools: value proposition, action statement, and agenda.

Your value proposition and action together deliver the lean communication imperative of ATQ: Answer the Question. In every meeting, the customer/prospect wants to know: “What do you want me to do, and why should I do it?” By being very upfront about it early, you dispel suspicion and jointly agree on the reason for the meeting. In the unlikely case you’re wrong, the customer will let you know immediately and you will have an opportunity to reset or pivot as necessary.

If the value proposition and action together set the destination, your written agenda is the road map that structures the conversation. In most cases, you’re going to be very explicit, even to the point of enumerating and explaining the agenda items and offering to add any issues they might have. I would estimate that a third of the calls I go on, I rarely need to use direct questions, because the customer sees the logic of the structure and willingly participates.

Even if the customer takes control and follows their own agenda, your effort hasn’t been wasted. When George began talking, I did not interrupt him; I simply slid my agenda across the table. He absent-mindedly straightened it out in front of him and kept talking—but within a couple of minutes, it became obvious that he was glancing at it and following the points I had prepared.

As the customer talks, your principal task is to listen intently and stay out of the buyer’s way if they’re following the right path, or nudge and gently re-direct them when they’re veering off. You can use encourages, probes and reflections, all fundamental following skills which you can brush up on here, or if you’re not already familiar with, you can pick up with a book or a class on active listening.

The hardest thing to do, especially when the customer is talking non-stop, is to keep the incoming information organized enough to know whether you’re getting what you need to accomplish your call purpose. That’s where your sales call plan with its prepared question list comes in handy, to help you unobtrusively check off which have been answered. I’ve also found the Cornell note-taking system to be enormously useful for maintaining situational awareness, and for recording keywords that will allow you to go back and revisit areas that need more attention.

Candidly, most salespeople aren’t ready for the ideas in this article, because they still haven’t learned how to ask enough good questions. But if you’ve already reached this stage, you can kick up your skills one more notch by learning how to go beyond questions.

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Lean Communication - Listening skills

Lean Listening Part 3: Minimizing Waste

So far in this series on lean listening, pills we’ve seen how the second conversation in our heads can be deployed to help us rather than hurt us, and how to use it to listen for value. This article shares ideas on how to use the second conversation to help us cut through the clutter and reduce waste. We do this by listening for the main point, sale making the logic and language transparent, and filtering out the irrelevant.

Listen for Organization: What’s the Point?

How many conversations do you participate in where you feel like you’re on a hunt for buried treasure? Under a torrent of words, you know there’s a point in there somewhere, and you hope it will show up soon. If your conversation partner is practicing lean communication, cialis they will put the bottom line up front for you, but if not, it’s up to you to figure out their main point as quickly as possible, because having it makes the rest of the listening process fall into place. Not knowing their main point makes it hard to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, or the important from the merely interesting.

So, your main listening task is to identify and gain agreement on the main point as quickly as possible. Ask yourself if you’ve heard the point, and if the answer is no, ask. Do they want something from you? If you haven’t figured out their “ask” in the first thirty seconds, ask them: What do you need from me? Why are you telling me this? If they won’t tell you, be on your guard.

Listen for Transparency

Next, do you understand the logic and the language of what they’re saying? Logic refers to spotting the structure of the other’s argument. A clear logical structure makes it much easier to spot gaps, inconsistencies, and irrelevancies.

If the other person is communicating lean, following their logic should not be a problem, but if you can’t spot an underlying pattern, you can help the other person communicate more clearly to you by asking them for the structure that you prefer. For example, most business proposals fall into either a problem/solution structure or an investment opportunity (and they’re not mutually exclusive). If you can identify which of these applies, you can trot out your own mental template to help slot the incoming information in its proper place. For example, if they’re proposing something to solve a problem, listen for these four main areas:

What’s the nature of the problem: is it described accurately, are the root causes clearly understood, and what are the consequences of not solving it now? What criteria will they use for a solution? What alternatives have they considered? What are the advantages of their recommended solution?

As to language, there is so much room for misunderstanding in ordinary conversation, but we often don’t ask for clarification because we think it might make us look slow or ignorant. Don’t let your ego get in the way of effectiveness; make it a practice of asking for clarification or definition, or a concrete example of an abstract term. If you can’t picture it, you may not understand it—and often they may not either. For example, if someone says they want to improve quality, ask them to describe the gap between what is and what should be, or get specific examples of customer complaints.

Listen for Waste

Once you have identified the main point, it will make it easier for you to organize and classify the incoming information. You can apply the Four-I test: concentrate on identifying the integral and important information, enjoy the interesting without getting too distracted by it, and ignore the irrelevant. You should mentally ask yourself “So What?” periodically to ensure that what you are hearing contributes to the purpose of the conversation. Once again, you are perfectly within your rights to ask the question out loud (as tactfully as you think you need to be), to ensure that the content of the message is aligned with the purpose.

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Lean Communication - Listening skills

Lean Listening, Part 2: Listen for Value

In the previous post, we said that lean listening is about listening for lean—paying close attention to the elements of the conversation that add value and minimize waste. This article focuses on the value part of that equation.

The thing about listening for value is that most of us are already pretty good at listening for value in conversations—as long as it’s our value. But in persuasive business conversations, there are usually two other parties that could potentially benefit: the other person, and the larger purpose.

Value in lean communication is defined as communication that improves outcomes for one or both parties while respecting the relationship. In lean communication, value can be added by one party, or jointly created by both. Listening is crucial either way, but especially so for the joint creation of value. It’s the key to getting the best thinking out of all parties in the conversation, first by allowing you to ask questions that dig deeper into the situation, and second by making it safe for the other person to bring up thoughts they might have kept to themselves. And, by involving the other person in whatever is agreed to, it makes it more likely that they will follow through.

You may recall that one of the tests of lean communication is who did the work. For example, the speaker may dump a mass of details and expect the listener to make sense of it. But lean listening does not care who did the work—just that the work gets done. In a conversation, you should take more than 51% of the responsibility to ensure that value is created, even if it’s you who has to do the work for the other person.

This 51+ rule means that if you are the one presenting the idea, you need to pay close attention to how the idea is being received, and whether you are getting active commitment rather than passive acquiescence; if you’re unsure, don’t hold back from asking questions to ensure the level of agreement you’re getting. If you’re the listener, listen for the question: what do you want me to do and why? If a question is asked, did you or they answer the question?

You can extract more value by taking positive control of the second conversation. If you don’t take control, your second conversation will default to looking for and noting negatives, such as differences between you and the other person, or obstacles that stand in the way of getting what you want. Try to listen actively for intersections of your interests and theirs. If your individual differences seem to be too far apart, listen for a higher purpose that you both can support, such as a specific value or goal of the organization.

Remember that value is defined by the customer, which in lean communication means the person you are speaking with. But the customer is not always right, because what they define as value may not be what is best for them or for the larger purpose. So, besides listening carefully for their view of value, you must always be on the alert for signals that indicate additional chances to add or create value. It’s like driving: your eyes are fixed on the road ahead, but your peripheral vision is alert for signs of unexpected danger.

In conversation, these signs fall into two categories: intentions and obstacles. Intentions are where they want to go, such as their plans, goals, desired future states, and values. Obstacles are elements of the situation that hinder their realization of intentions, and they fall under four general categories: Problems, Opportunities, Changes, and Risks (POCR).

They may not be explicit in these, or even be totally aware of them themselves, so listen carefully for the signs of value; it’s amazing how much extra you can pick up if you’re alert for these. I once videotaped a sales role play in which the “buyer” revealed five potential intentions or obstacles in about thirty seconds. When we reviewed the tape, the seller had missed all five, and the buyer was not even aware of three of them that had come out of his own mouth! But what’s interesting is that when we reviewed the video and looked specifically for signals of value, they popped right out.

All this may seem like a lot to remember, so here are just two questions you should have in mind to help you listen for value:

  • How can I help?
  • What can I learn?

If you keep these questions involved in your second conversation while listening, you are almost guaranteed to improve outcomes for all parties concerned; and you will definitely respect the relationship at the same time.

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Listening skills

Listening Math

Have you noticed that most of the training we need is about what we already know, but don’t do enough of? That’s certainly the case with listening skills. We all know how important listening is, but we all fall short of the level we’re capable of.

The interesting thing about listening skill is that we all can perform at top levels when we’re really, really motivated, so it’s not a question of knowing what to do; it’s about executing at the necessary level consistently.

If you think you’re a good listener, here’s some listening math to ponder:

50/25/10 A study showed that the average person remembers only 50% of what was said immediately after a 10 minute oral presentation. After 24 hours, the figure drops to 25%, and to 10% after a week. The first 50% is not a memory problem, it’s a listening problem, as anyone knows who hears a person’s name for the first time and “forgets” it ten seconds later.


500/125 In standard American spoken English, we speak at about 125 words per minute, but process words mentally at about 500 words per minute. I’m not sure how scientific the thinking speed measurement is, but it’s obvious that we can think much faster than others can speak. That’s why it’s so easy to get distracted while listening to someone else. We think we can listen and think about something else at the same time, but we’re actually rapidly switching back and forth – except when we forget to switch back.


583 The number of people killed when two 747s collided at Tenerife airport in 1977, caused primarily by a chain of listening errors and misunderstandings between pilots and air traffic control, and between pilots and copilots.


80/45 Those of us in business spend up to 80% of our waking hours in communicating almost half (45%) of our communication efforts consist of listening. There’s a lot of effectiveness left on the table if we’re not listening to our full potential.


43,8 The average length of a political sound bite on national news in 1968, and the average length in 1988. CBS News tried to counter this trend by mandating a minimum 30-second sound bite, but had to abandon the effort when people would not listen.


18 “That’s the average time it takes a doctor to interrupt you as you’re describing your symptoms. By that point, he/she has in mind what the answer is, and that answer is probably right about 80% of the time.”  Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think


N = 1 One of the reasons that doctors (and possibly ourselves) tune out is that we think we’ve heard it all before. Maybe the other person needs advice with a problem, and it’s something we’re familiar with. Every conversation has a sample size of 1, because every person feels themselves unique, and maybe if we listen a little longer we may learn something new ourselves.


51+ This is a number I made up. 51+ represents the minimum level of responsibility you should take for your side of the conversation. When listening, don’t just passively take in the other’s words; meet them more than halfway and make sure you get their meaning. When talking, don’t assume that they got it just because you said it, make sure.


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