Say what? Learn to be a better listener

When I was first learning to sell, one of mentors taught me to “mirror” the client and mimic their every move. If they put their hands behind their head, I would put my hands behind my head. If they crossed their legs, I crossed my legs. This “mirroring” was supposed to lead to an improved rapport between the client and me. I thought this was pretty much hogwash — until I tried it. Turns out, I had better rapport with the client — not because I was in tune with their body positions, but because this mirroring really fooled my brain into being a better listener.

Neuroscience researchers have made amazing insights into how we listen. Many times when we “listen” to someone, our brain is busy NOT listening to that conversation; instead, it is formulating a response, worrying about how we are being perceived or being preoccupied with something else. This, in fact, is the default channel for our brain — our brain wants to be busy telling us a story about the conversation instead of listening to the conversation. Moreover, the story that the brain is telling us tends to be upsetting. It tends to be engaging the parts of our brain that are millions of years old and that part of our brain wants to think in terms of flight or flee. So you can see how this whole process could make it difficult to listen to someone else talk — our brain is carrying on a narrative, and that narrative is making us feel edgy, like we need to run or fight.

But there is another channel in our brain. This channel is good at observing and taking in the world around us. Unlike the narrative default channel we were just in, it’s not connected to the lizard brain that wants to fight or flee. In fact when you are using this channel, the “fight or flee” circuits are turned off. This is the ideal state for our brain to be in if we are trying to listen closely to a client, prospect or customer. But it’s not our default state; we have to do something specific to turn this channel on so that we can fully and powerfully observe.

When we are fully engaged in observing the movements of another person, it turns off the narrative channel in our brains. We are no longer able to use our precious brain resources telling ourselves stories about how we are being perceived or thinking about how we are going to respond. We aren’t getting all agitated or nervous. Instead, we are focused, observing and listening closely to what’s being said.

This is also why when we are upset, it can help to take a deep breath. Stopping and observing our breathing turns off that narrative channel and turns on the direct channel, helping us to calm down and think more clearly.

Where can this insight help you to be a better communicator?

For more information about the science behind this, there’s a nice summary article from Psychology Today. But I’d recommend that you read David Rock’s terrific book “Your Brain at Work” for even more insight.

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