Can You Hear Me Now?

The value of active listening

Do you remember when, back in 2002, Verizon ran a TV campaign with a guy in black glasses who uttered the catchphrase “Can you hear me now?” For nine years, Paul Marcarelli ignited an ad that redefined the competitive cell phone industry. Verizon’s customer base jumped 10 percent in the first 24 months and then another 15 percent the following year. Reportedly, Paul earned $250,000 a year wandering around saying that phrase, and fame followed him everywhere.

In 2011, Marcarelli’s contract ended with Verizon. Rival Sprint (who later merged with T-Mobile) sprinted into the limelight when they asked Paul to star in their TV campaign called “Paul Switched.” Like Tom Brady moving to another team, the idea worked so well that the Sprint commercial was viewed over 14 million times. The CEO of Sprint said that they beat AT&T and Verizon that quarter in adding new customers. It was a bold campaign that paid off for the No. 4 carrier.

Purposeful listening is an active process. It allows those of us in business to look inward and become aware of the barriers that inhibit our ability to listen effectively. This process is invaluable as you mentor, monitor, motivate, and manage others. You must give your complete, intentional focus to what someone says, rather than to what their words mean. Active listening is a skill that directs the focus of what is in your mind to the words coming from the outside. By focusing on what a person is saying, you can understand needs and information more accurately.

Listening is more than just hearing the words. It’s about understanding the context in which those words are shared, and noticing verbal and nonverbal cues (voice inflection, tone, facial expressions, and body language). To do this, you must be present and in the moment; you can’t think about the myriad of things on your vendor order list for today, how you are going to make payroll, or where you are taking your partner for dinner. You cannot let distractions take away your focus. Your main goals during purposeful listening are to seek understanding, show compassion, and demonstrate empathy.

No one is as deaf as the man who will not listen.

— Jewish Proverb

Active and effective listening

What are the benefits of effective listening? In an organizational setting, there are many positive benefits for companies, leaders, and employees. These include building stronger relationships, developing trust, and having more effective team collaboration, improved individual and group decision-making, greater productivity and—my favorite—enhanced creativity and innovation.

If you can foster a servant leadership approach of interaction with your team, you will be way ahead of your competition. A foundational element of servant leadership is authentic listening. We need to cultivate our self-understanding and understanding of others through active listening.

For younger people, a by-product of compassionate active listening is a human benefit that is more important than you might imagine. Gen-Z people (anyone born from 1997 to 2012) are keenly aware of feeling safe and being safe and rank both high in their work environment must-haves. If they feel heard, validated, understood, and valued, this component of your team will feel safer. Who knew?

So, ditch any old-school idea that fear-based management works. It might have had teeth in the early 1960s, but today’s crop of well-educated Gen-Z employees will not stay if that is your mode of operation. They grew up in the tumultuous times of 9/11, school shootings, political unrest, and fear of the future. Work must be a safe zone.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

— Stephen Covey

Listening is important to your company’s future. Communicating well requires two distinct things: expressing yourself and listening to others. Listening can be challenging. Often, lots of people are good at talking but fall short when it comes time to hear the thoughts and feelings of others. To improve, you must be more intentional about being a good listener. But why is it worth the effort?

It builds trust

When you make the effort to listen to someone, they immediately recognize your interest. They can tell you are invested in what they have to say. They become more open and comfortable sharing with you. Make sure you maintain eye contact, stay focused, and open your mind to their words. This will help you gain trust because you are showing that you respect their thoughts and feelings.

It reduces misunderstandings

Poor communication fosters misunderstandings. When people do not listen to each other, it’s easier to mishear or misinterpret someone’s meaning. If you don’t listen with purpose, it can have major consequences.

It helps eliminate conflict

You not listening well frustrates the people engaged in important conversations with you. Poor listening skills are at the root of many conflicts. People want to feel respected. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything you hear, but by making the effort to listen effectively, you keep the situation calm—especially when things are tense. And that can keep things from escalating to conflict.

It encourages empathy

We are the sum of everything that has gone into our minds through experience, upbringing, and how we view the world. It’s easy to lean on your preconceived notions, but you must commit to listening rather than assuming. Developing your emotional quotient (EQ) is directly related to the success you will achieve in our industry and your life. People who are keenly aware of how they influence people around them; who understand their own emotions and self-awareness; and who motivate themselves are empathetic and traditionally great leaders.

It improves romantic relationships

Poor communication is behind a lot of conflict and heartache in romantic relationships. Again, when you listen to someone intently, you create a safe, judgment-free environment. What does that mean to you in your shop, you ask? Many of you work with your significant other, which means you put in a 10- to 12-hour day, discuss work over lunch and later over dinner, and sometimes after dinner when you are home. Running a growing business is tough; I did it for 12 years. Luckily, I got to do it with my best friend and wife, Nita. We had complementary skill sets and made great partners. But we had to invest in good listening and really spend time on the synergy of working with and not against each other.

It improves business relationships

Whether you work with your vendors, customers, or employees, good listening is invaluable in good communication. Misunderstandings and conflict can derail projects and create a poor reputation. Our industry is very narrow, and we all know many of the same people. News of any type travels at the speed of light. Listen with this goal in mind: build each relationship so that it is strong and enduring. People will feel respected and eager to work with you and may even champion your business.

It helps deepen your friendships

Purposeful listening deepens friendships. We’ve covered the benefits of listening—greater trust, fewer misunderstandings, and more empathy—and all of these translate to friendships. It’s worth the effort. Deeper friendships are linked to better physical and mental health. I’m proud to have one person who has been my customer/friend since 1986 (I’m still his sign vendor) and others who have been friends at the boss, employee, peer, vendor, or client level for over 30 years.

It increases your productivity

Whether you are at work, at school, at a doctor’s office, or on a Mediterranean cruise, listening is important to your success. Good listeners are more likely to retain information, understand what is required of them, and ask the right questions. This is invaluable in group meetings and projects. When everyone is a good listener, it saves everyone’s time. And time is money.

It helps with learning new languages

Remember the Mediterranean cruise? When you’re learning a new language, you must practice speaking it a lot. However, listening is equally important, if not more so. You are exercising your brain, and that can be exhausting. Hearing the new language you want to learn is a big part of mastering it. Audiobooks, music, and—my favorite—movies are good resources. Sometimes you must turn on the captions in that dubbed romantic comedy and listen to the language!

It improves your leadership skills

To become a better leader, you should become a better listener. Active listening helps you make connections between your team’s ideas and their perspectives, and it will help prevent misunderstandings. When you are a good leader, you ensure that each team member feels respected and heard. If you’ve always thought that good leaders are people who express themselves well, that is just 50 percent of the equation. They are also good listeners.

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.

— Doug Larson

There are many keys to effective, purposeful listening. These have worked for me in my career, and I hope they help you as you continue your journey of self-improvement:

  1. Maintain eye contact with the speaker. Stay focused.
  2. Pay attention and listen for ideas instead of thinking of what to say next.
  3. Find common areas of interest and connection. Dig deep if you must.
  4. Judge content, not delivery. We are not all orators like Abraham Lincoln.
  5. Be patient and do not interrupt. As mom said, “patience is a virtue.”
  6. Hold back your points or those things that pop into your mind that you feel compelled to say.
  7. Resist distractions. Stay very focused.
  8. Pay close attention to nonverbal cues and information. The body never lies.
  9. Keep your mind open and be flexible. You will probably learn something.
  10. Ask questions during pauses and give feedback. Sparingly.
  11. Listen with empathy and try to see the speaker’s viewpoint. Get uncomfortable; you’ll probably learn something else.
  12. Anticipate, summarize, weigh the evidence, look between the lines, and be empathetic.

Can you hear me now?

Paul Ingle

Paul Ingle

Design Center Signs

Paul Ingle started selling signs in 1985 and has worked with regional, national, and international accounts with custom, architectural and production manufacturing firms. He has held various positions in sales, sales management, and marketing since 1973. From 2006 to 2017, he and his wife Nita owned Design Center Signs in Tyler, Texas (A Comet Signs Company.) Comet Signs is now part of Stratus, the leading facilities and branding implementation firm. Paul is a past president of the Texas Sign Association and its regional chapter the Greater DFW Sign Association. Contact him at paul.ingle@cometsigns.com.

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