On Listening

Listening is a core skill for negotiators, for business people, doctors, judges, for all of us in our professional and personal lives.  Yet very few of us receive specific training anywhere in our schooling in what makes good listening as opposed to poor listening.  We learn by doing, and by and large, we learn by trial and error. That can result in some painful lessons, on both ends.

In negotiation, if we don’t listen very well, if we can’t listen closely and with real care, we are actually working against our own self-interest. It’s that important. And that is why we put the very word listening into our Language of Negotiation.

Let’s begin with this, from Wharton Professor Richard Shell:

“It is hard to overstate the importance of listening skills in bargaining. Information-Based Bargaining begins with the idea that information is power. Listening enables you to get information.

If having high expectations is sometimes a problem for cooperative people, listening requires special effort for competitive types. Aggressive bargainers spend most of their time at the bargaining table either talking about what they want or thinking of something clever to say next that will put the other side on the defensive.

 [But] the best negotiators follow a different practice: They ask questions, test for understanding, summarize discussions, and listen, listen, listen.”

Bargaining for Advantage, (2d. Ed., 2006), p. 22.

Three key points I want to tease out of this statement.  First, Professor Shell emphasizes that it is the competitive negotiator who is often the one that is not a good listener. So a competitive negotiator would do well to focus intently on improving their listening skill – it’s in one’s competitive self-interest to do so! And, if we are a competitor, and find ourselves opposite a competitor, then perhaps we need to take extra care to make sure our messages are ‘getting through’ to that counterparty.

Second, let’s highlight the mantra: ask questions, test for understanding, summarize. We will touch on this triad elsewhere in the course, most notably in our discussion on cross-cultural negotiation – it bears repetition:  ask questions, test for understanding, summarize.

Thirdly, the word “listen.” Just listen. But okay, you ask, how do we improve our ability to listen. One useful way to approach this question is, actually, to look first for the things that get in our way, the obstacles that prevent us from listening well.  My list looks like this:

  • Inner Voice:
    • Our minds like to wander about, think about other things. And, I dare say, we sometimes rationalize this very activity by attributing to ourselves the ability to “multi-task;”
  • Waiting for Our Window:
    • One of those things our inner voice likes to do is get ready to talk, to figure out what we want to say next, rather than concentrating on the other person and their message.
  • Inner Judge:
    • Even if we are listening with care, we often begin to judge our counterparty, and their message; this becomes a huge distraction and a source of error.
  • Censoring:
    • We also find ourselves dismissing or rejecting some of what we are hearing, using any number of our own, usually biased, reasons.
  • Problem Solving:
    • Often we will begin preparing our brilliant solution to the other person’s problem, even though we haven’t even listened to it all the way through.

Rest assured, most of us do at least some of these things… I certainly do. None of us can abide these rules all the time. The point is to be consciously aware of these obstacles, so that we notice them when they occur, so we can manage the effects and maintain our concentration. There is one consistent attribute to all of these things. Well, two actually: (1) they are obstacles to good listening and (2) all of these thoughts can be done later, and likely when done later, done better.

Having first looked at the obstacles, let’s next walk through the main tools that help me concentrate and improve my ability to truly listen:

  • A Calm and Quiet Mind
    • Addressing several of the sources of noise just mentioned, this primarily means finding a way to ‘rest’ our inner voice.
  • Intention
    • Directing, or even projecting, our mental self towards the other person.
  • Empathy
    • Directing, or even projecting, our emotional self towards the other person.
  • Heightened Awareness
    • Increasing the receptivity of all of our senses to learn from the non-verbal cues.
  • Disconnect from our Ego
    • It may be temporary, but it works.
    • Somewhat like meditation, it takes discipline.
    • For me it starts with letting go of the first person singular (“I”).

Let’s look at an experienced practitioner’s view:

“It is very important to listen to the sometimes faint signals hidden in the give-and-take of discussions, and through careful questioning learn about why one issue mattered, or another option was not possible, in a particular negotiation. The best way to manage the flow of information about interests is to realize that it is a strategic process, and to take it slowly.”

-Maria Gomez Rodriguez, Esq.  (A visual arts lawyer licensed to practice law in New York, California, and Spain, Maria is fluent in four languages)(emphasis added).

Two ideas I want to tease out here. First, the idea of the faint signals. When the other party strategically guards certain information from us, it is the few faint or distant signals they may inadvertently deliver that are most likely to provide us with accurate information about their position or strategies. The information we are given is information they want us to have, because it helps their cause in some way. To be sure, we’re pleased to have that information, but we also want clues into what they are hiding.  And the hints of what that information might be are found in…the faint signals.

The second idea is actually an assembly of three concepts. First, from Richard’s statement:  “… Information is power. Listening enables you to get information.” Next, we fold in Maria’s idea that ‘the flow of information is a strategic process.’ Then, we cap it off with her caution to just be patient, to “take it slowly.”

For me, the single best tool for good listening is Heightening Awareness:

  • that the other person needs to feel they are “being heard;”
  • that there is more, and better, information than what is being volunteered;
  • of the obstacles that prevent good listening;
  • of non-verbal signals from our counterpart; and
  • at the highest level, that most of our listening is done not with our ears but with our hearts.

These several aspects of awareness, when allowed to work together during the times that we are truly listening in a negotiation, are a pathway to our best listening. Let me end with this takeaway about good listening:

As a fundamental strategy in negotiation, we kindly accept the information given to us, patiently inquire into the information not being given, listen and observe with our best awareness, and curate all the information as it compiles – all of this, iteratively, to curate our best understanding of the context and subject matter affecting our negotiation.




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