HABIT #5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

This is the fifth post in our 7 Habits for Highly Successful Communication Managers. As we work to be less reactionary (Habit #1 – Be Proactive), have a clear strategy (Habit #2 – Begin with the End in Mind), and work to prioritize tasks (Habit #3 – Putting First Things First), we must have an overarching goal for everyone to win (Habit #4 – Think Win-Win). From Habit #4, Think Win-Win, we move to Habit #5, Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. According to Steven R. Covey, “Communication is the most important skill in life.”

You spend years learning how to speak, and years learning how to read and write. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being? Probably none, right?”

Habit #5 Teaches us to Ask Questions and then Stop and Listen to the AnswersHabit #5 Epicetetus

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” If there is wisdom in the design of our ears and mouth, then why do so many sales people, project managers, and IT managers do the exact opposite?

Many of us tell the person we are talking to as much as possible about our product, project, department, or responsibilities in as short a time as possible without any regard to their needs, wants, and motivations. If we are doing all the talking and not very much listening, is communication really taking place? Isn’t that ironic since we are all in the communication business?

A few years ago my primary job was selling ShoreTel phone systems. They have a cool product that includes a PC-based call control interface, which enabled some amazing features. A user could drag and drop calls, see their peer’s presence, IM their colleagues, dial out of Outlook, and video chat.

It demonstrated really well and usually led to more than a few “wows”from the prospect. I had been doing the demo for many months and had the script down cold. My boss and I went to the prospect and showed them the demo. They were impressed and had their eyes opened to what was possible in IP telephony.

The prospect gave us some positive buy signs and then asked us if we would like to see their facility. We said yes and started the tour. As they took us back into their manufacturing plant, the decision maker said to us “so if we want to take advantage of all your features, we are going to have to buy all our employees a PC, right?”

They had 100 factory workers that didn’t have offices let alone an assigned computer or workstation. We completely missed the boat. Had we asked better discovery questions and understood his business, we would have changed our presentation completely.

We didn’t get the sale because the cost for a hundred PC’s was 3 times the budget for the new phone system. Our solution could have fit their business perfectly, but we pitched all the wrong features out of ignorance. More discovery questions up front would have led to a happy customer and a sale. The customer understood our solution completely –we didn’t understand the customer at all. If we had paid attention to Habit #5 and asked better questions things might have turned out differently.

Habit #5 Tells us to Understand the Audience

Our CEO, Roger Blohm, was speaking at the Wisconsin Healthcare Technology Association conference a few years ago. The idea of the cloud was still in its infancy. The session right before ours was a forward-thinking discussion of the cloud and how every business in the future would be moving their data there.

Pager - Habit #5 The cloud presentation was very provocative. The audience was primarily healthcare professionals who are notoriously slow in adopting new technologies and extremely paranoid about housing their data anywhere but on their premises.

When Roger stood up to speak, he started by asking the audience “what is your biggest headache right now?” A CIO of a large hospital chain raised his hand and said, “I have 15,000 pagers that need to have their batteries changed once a month.”What a revelation.

These CIO’s were worrying about changing pager batteries – the idea of moving data to the cloud went completely over their heads. They couldn’t even consider the concept of the cloud while they were worrying about so many other terrestrial things like pagers. The cloud presenter didn’t understand anything about his audience and consequently they missed his message completely. Had the presenter followed habit #5 and asked a few questions at the beginning, the presentation could have been tailored to meet his needs.

Is Selling Your Solution the Same as Selling the Right Solution?

A few months ago I was talking to a Value Added Reseller (VAR) that was so proud of his selling process. He touted that they always sell “solutions” to their customers and spend a huge amount of time really understanding the customer’s business so they can be consultants and not just salesmen.

I asked him what Unified Communications (UC) products they sold. He said we are “…exclusively a Cisco shop.”I said, so in all your sales interactions you haven’t ever been to a prospect where a hosted UC system, an Avaya, or a ShoreTel would be a better fit than Cisco? He said “Nope!”I was amazed.

Was he really selling “solutions”or was he just trying to find a way to always fit the Cisco solution’s round peg into the customer’s square hole no matter what? This company might think they are good listeners but their bias towards Cisco is so prominent they only hear what they want to hear.

Miscommunication Happens Everywhere

Last month I attended the Telarus Partner Summit and David Arvin, the author of It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows You, told a great story about the time his wife sent him to the store for ingredients for a dinner party. David got everything and was proud of his shopping success. One of the items his wife told him to buy was “fresh margarine”. He spent some time looking at the packaging and expiration dates and found the freshest margarine he could find. When he returned home his wife picked up the margarine and asked him “What is this?”David proudly said, “That is the freshest margarine in the store.”His wife smiled and said “That’s nice but I said ‘fresh marjoram’ not margarine.”It turns out that margarine and marjoram are completely different, and apparently not interchangeable even though they might sound very similar. This is another classic case of total miscommunication.

Every sales training seminar I have ever attended stressed the need for better listening. Apparently salespeople aren’t good listeners. I think as CIO’s, IT managers, and UC managers, listening is a lost skill for us as well. Do we know the products we deliver are meeting the business needs of our internal customers? When we deliver technology to our users do they use it in the way we intended? Did we hit the target or buy margarine?

marjoram Habit #5We need to ask better questions and then really listen to the answers. Habit #5 says we need to be actively listening to the person we are talking to rather than trying to figure out how to fit them into our agenda. If we are thinking about what we are going to say next, we aren’t actively listening. We should take notes as we listen so we can stay focused on the discovery process. If we ask enough questions, the person we are talking to will tell us what they really need. Once we understand what they need, we can decide if we can help them or not. If we listen carefully we wont confuse margarine with marjoram.

By the way, marjoram is an herb with a sweet pine and citrus flavor.

What are your favorite miscommunication stories from work? How do you make sure you are communicating clearly?


Want to learn more? Join us for our 20 minute webinar on Habit #5, Wednesday, August 27th at 8 AM Pacific. Click here to register.

Doug Tolley (15 Blog Posts)

Doug Tolley is the Business Development Director for LVM, Inc. He has 20 years of experience in Business Development, Sales and Consulting, and Project Management in a wide variety of businesses with a primary emphasis on IT.