Active listening is a way to find what is really behind the objections you hear.
I was talking to my friend Henry the other day. Henry has a product that allows engine oil and hydraulic fluid to last 4-10 times longer than usual.
No, no. This is not one of those wacko devices you see on late-night TV infomercials, this is the real thing. It’s actually for big machines, like 18 wheelers, bulldozers and the like, and it’s endorsed by Caterpillar and other manufacturers.
Anyway, Henry was telling me about the resistance he gets from the potential buyers at the quarries and trucking firms and government agencies he sells to. Objections like, ‟We’ve always done it the old way,” ‟I don’t care if Caterpillar says it’s okay, I’m not going to take a chance.”
He was getting this from the maintenance chief at a government agency. (No names, please, but I can say this much: the agency was neither the CIA, or Homeland Security!)
In his sales call, Henry asked all the right questions and got the maintenance chief to agree that, ‟Yes, it would save a lot of mechanics’ time if they had to do oil changes on these big rigs only one-fifth as often. But my mechanics are all on the payroll, they’re all government employees, and we have to pay them all the same even if they aren’t so busy with oil changes.”
To another question, the chief agreed that, ‟Sure, I can see that we’d save a big bunch of money if we had to buy only 20% of the oil we now use. But, let me tell you, son, that oil expense is already written in the budget, so I might as well use it. If I don’t spend it on oil, I’ll get less money next year.”
Now here’s where it goes from just listening to the words to active listening to what is behind the objection, and how much that particular objection matters to this prospect.
Then Henry asked, ‟But what about the environmental impact? Think of the positive effects on the environment if you had 80% less dirty oil to dispose of.” THAT had impact. The chief’s response: to jump out of his chair, saying , ‟Environment? Hell’s bells, why didn’t you tell me that helped the environment! That’s one of the new measures I’m judged on in this job— showing how I’m improving our environmental footprint. If your product can help the environment, then I’m all for it.”
Moral of the story: keep asking the right questions— and keep active listening to both the words and the subtle, non-verbal signals that come back — until you find the hot buttons that this prospect is judged on.
They may not be judged on contributing to profitability — that may not be part of their job, even in private industry. They may not be judged on cost or labor savings. But they may be judged — as in Henry’s case — on showing new environmental impact.
Or on who knows what else? The only way to know is to ask, listen, observe — and if you find that key in Organization A, it may well be true in similar Orgs B through Z.
Active listening, in a nutshell, involves “listening” not just with your ears, but with your eyes and your intuitions. Active listening also means not just passively absorbing, but probing, exploring, giving the speaker feedback that you understand and are interested in this aspect.