Listen up! Healthy communication is essential in every relationship. Therapists and counselors use specific listening techniques to create optimal communication between them and their clients. By adopting some of these basic listening skills, you can show clients you care and that they matter. Before continuing, its important to clarify these techniques do not involve ensnaring clients into "the sunken place," or conditioning them to leave a positive review every time you ring a bell. The following tips are far more simple (and less nefarious) ways to improve your interactions with customers.
A necessary part of listening is showing your audience you care and that they are being heard. Our ears shouldn't be the only part of this process. Strategically positioning yourself not only shows the other person you're engaged, it also helps you focus and retain what is being said. Therapists use the acronym SOLER to assist in this method. Consider the following next time you are pulled into a one-on-one meeting or confronted by an angry customer.
Squarely face the speaker. Position yourself to face directly across from the other person. Angling your body away can show they do not have your attention or that you do not wish to have the conversation altogether. Maintain an open posture. Crossed arms or legs can be interpreted as defensive or uninviting. Lean slightly toward the speaker to show you are engaged and interested. Provide eye contact. Diverting your gaze says you are nervous or uncomfortable with what you're hearing. (Sustained unbroken eye contact also not recommended). Finally, relax. If the other person sees you are calm, they will more likely be at ease. (Egan, 1986)
Listen to Understand
We are taught from a young age to "listen to reply." This is how conversations naturally occur. Someone makes a statement, you respond. Someone asks a question, you provide an answer. "Listening to understand" requires silencing your own opinions and solutions to instead focus on why a person thinks or feels the way they do. Therapists are trained not to judge or critique their clients. Likewise, customer service professionals should strive to build rapport before fixing any problems. Avoid interrupting or jumping in with your own solutions. Instead, ask questions to get an understanding of what led them to feel that way. What has their experience been? How were their expectations not met? Asking questions and paraphrasing back what you've heard gives you a better understanding of their situation and minimizes the chance of miscommunication.
Validate Thoughts and Feelings
Whether a client is angry, confused, or upset, emotions always make sense. Emotions are based on our feelings, beliefs, and perceptions. When we listen to understand, we let the person know their emotions are legitimate. Ignoring, minimizing, and shifting blame are all ways to invalidate someone's emotions, making the person feel they are unheard. A common misunderstanding of validation is agreement. Validating thoughts and feelings is not necessarily agreeing with how they feel, but accepting and understanding them. Although your client may still be upset after they've met with you, they will at least know they were heard. When a person knows they have been heard, they are more inclined to listen in return.
Egan, G. (1986), ‘The Skilled Helper’, 3rd Ed., Brooks/Cole, Belmont, California.