Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood

I remember going into a shop in Cape Town in the 1980’s to buy a new jacket. I was wearing a tweed jacket that I had grown to hate. When I first bought it, I loved it because at the time it was fashionable. But after wearing it for many years it had gone out of style and I resented having to wear it, but I couldn’t afford to buy a new one for many years.

I had finally managed to save enough money to buy a new jacket and I went into a trendy men’s clothing store to buy a fashionable and up to date jacket. I was soon to be disappointed. An enthusiastic young salesman greeted me at the entrance and I told him I was interested in buying a jacket. Seeing that I was wearing a tweed jacket he immediately drew some incorrect conclusions. “Ah, yes.” He said. “I have just the thing for you”. He then proceeded to show me all the tweed jackets that were like the one I was already wearing.

Although I admired his enthusiasm it was clear that he had not done his homework. He didn’t ask me any questions about what style, size or colour jacket that I might be interested in. If he had I may have bought something but instead I politely thanked him for his time and left the shop.

Steven Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said, ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ How often do we really take the time to ask questions and then listen to understand? If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; because you want to get your point across or explain the latest trend in your industry. You may then listen politely to your customer selectively listening to the words you are used to hearing. But, very often you miss the point of what your customer is saying. I see this often especially when the customer has a complaint.

Why does this happen? Steven Covey explains that most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. As a result, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he or she finishes what they are saying. Does this sound familiar? I’ve done it myself hundreds of times.

The next time a customer walks in take the time to ask questions and really listen to what they have to say. Don’t presume or have any preconceived ideas about their situation. Keep asking questions until they have shared everything they want to say. You may be surprised about what you learn, and the customer is likely to buy more from you because they sense that they can trust you.