How to Master Active Listening Like the Professional Negotiator You Are

How to Master Active Listening Like the Professional Negotiator You Are

The strongest tool in your relationship-building toolbox is very simple. It is to listen. Not just “hear” but to genuinely listen and work to absorb the message being sent to you. When you are negotiating, selling, or in any situation where you need to build a relationship, active listening is a skill you should master to make these encounters more powerful and rewarding.

Stephen Covey tells us that a key habit of successful people is to seek first to understand – then to be understood. The problem is that most of us have developed some very bad habits that make us want to be heard first rather than understanding first. Our bodies send signals that we are not listening and those around us can see that. Active listening helps you send better signals - signals that you care, are listening for understanding, and that as a result, you will be fair. It builds trust and relationships.

Eye Contact

The first step in active listening is to establish solid eye contact. This is not a staring contest to see who can go without blinking for the longest time. Eye contact tells the person that you are focused on them; that you are listening to their every word. It should be natural and you should try very hard to ignore the TV behind them, or the dog running down the street, or the cop writing a ticket on – wait a minute is that your car? OK, there are legitimate distractions, but absent that, stay focused on the speaker.

Other Body Signals

Eye contact is just one of several positive body language signals to show you are listening. Sit or stand straight without slouching. Nod in understanding. This does not indicate agreement; only that you are listening. Where you place your hands can also invite the speaker to provide more detail or explanation. Putting your hands on your hips (called “akimbo”) or crossing them over your chest suggests that you are impatient and closed to their input. This will quiet them more quickly and limit understanding.

Fiddling with change in your pocket or jingling keys can have that same effect. Try to keep your hands still. Don’t sway, dance, shuffle your feet, or spin in your chair. Be relaxed. Open your ears and listen.

Focus on Their Message

Our ability to hear what is being said far exceeds the speed at which the most rapid speaker can talk. What we usually do with this surplus brainpower is to formulate what we are going to say next. While some thinking allows us to comprehend what is being said, resist the temptation to formulate your next monologue after hearing the first ten words of the person speaking.

In the same vein, don’t interrupt. Even if justified, it makes people angry and they respond accordingly. Let people drone on if they must. It makes them feel as if they are being heard.

Some personality types speak to think aloud. Allowing them to continue can sometimes allow them to convince themselves of your position. This takes patience; another important and too-rare skill for the active listener.

Encourage Story Development

Practice a few natural phrases that encourage people to tell their whole story. Such phrases as, “and then what happened?’ or “and how did that make you feel?” or “please tell me more” all serve to get more detail from the speaker.

Not everyone is a good storyteller, so they might need some coaching to get the story laid out in a complete fashion. To improve your skill in this area practice telling jokes or short stories. Very few people do this well, but it can be learned. Read short stories from authors you enjoy. Mark Twain was a consummate storyteller.


Another encouraging device is to learn to ask outstanding questions. This is a more difficult and detailed skill to master. It is beyond the scope of this article, yet an essential skill for the excellent negotiator.

Restate - Rephrase

\Another suggested habit is to practice repetition and rephrasing. State to the person what you heard. Put it in your own words if you must, but this gives them a level of confidence that you understood things the way they intended to convey them. This repetition also locks it into your mind so that you can recall it later.

Muddled Thinking => Muddled Speaking (and Writing!)

Both muddled writing and muddled speaking reflect each other. If you cannot say it clearly, you are not thinking clearly. If you are not thinking clearly, you cannot speak clearly. When you get yourself confused, your listeners are confused as well. I long ago memorized a short phrase to help lighten the mood and reset my own thinking when this happens. “I know you think you understood what you thought I said, but what you don’t understand is that what you heard is not what I meant to say.” In radio we would often say, “My tongue got wrapped around my eye-teeth and I couldn’t see what I was saying.”

Seth Godin has made the following observation:

“That’s not what I meant”

Disagreements among people who mean well usually begin with that emotion.

You meant to say something or agree to something, but the “other side” didn’t hear it that way.

That’s enough for a customer to walk away forever. That’s enough for a lawsuit. Because denying the experience of the other person doesn’t open the door for re-connection.

Forward motion is possible if we can extend the sentence to, “That’s not what I meant, but that must be what you heard, how do we fix this? Will you help me make things right again?”

If we can agree on intent, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to move forward. Seth’s Blog 10/22/20 

Body Language

Learn to read the body language of your listeners. When you have stumbled or misspoken, it is important to correct yourself and clarify for your listeners. You might be responding to a puzzled look, indications of distraction, or they might even fall asleep. As the speaker, your job is to hold your audience. Acknowledge your own shortcomings and reset the intended message.

Taking Notes

Is it appropriate to take notes while engaged in active listening? This is a common problem for journalists and negotiators. Capturing conversations in writing can facilitate clear communication. You have to drop the eye contact to look at a piece of paper, but the simple answer is yes – it is appropriate to take notes. LIMITED notes. Why limited?

While eye contact encourages a focus on what is being said, most people will better remember things that they write down. By making limited notes you can focus on those most important things and commit them to memory.

Everything in Writing is True

Further, some note taking suggests to the speaker that you consider something they said so important that it is worth making a record. There is something interesting about the written word. When we see something in writing, we naturally believe that it is more accurate. Taken to an extreme, however, this concept has led to the humorous conclusion that if you found it on the web, it must be true.  

Obviously, that is NOT true, but we laugh because it is “almost” true. We are more likely to believe something that is written down, and if you are writing what the speaker is saying, you are encouraging them with the subliminal message that you believe what they are saying. So yes, it’s OK to take notes during active listening, but keep it limited and only the high points. Keep it short so that you can re-engage the eye contact.

If you ever have the opportunity to observe a great reporter you will see that they ask excellent questions and then have the learned ability to continue writing while maintaining eye-contact with the interviewee. And they write clearly. It is not the chicken scratch that you might imagine. In this way, they record impressions while being sure not to miss any nonverbal cues.

Moderate Your Voice

When in discussions or negotiations, you also have the tool of your voice – it’s volume, inflection, and tone. Temper your words. Do not be aggressive with your language or your attitude, just as you should not appear condescending. If your listener perceives that you are speaking down to them, they will stop listening and begin plotting their revenge. You can’t control their perceptions completely, but you can work toward not antagonizing them!

I can’t emphasize this next point enough – there is NEVER a place for vulgarity or profanity. Remove those words from your language in all situations. Similarly, off-color jokes, sexist or racist comments, or any other discriminatory comments are never funny. Never say them.

But...... (Everything you said is wrong)

Another excellent suggestion is to eliminate the word “but” from your lexicon. Whenever there is a “but” in a sentence it is a red flag that says “everything that came before this is about to be negated.” It is an indirect (and passive/aggressive) way to say, “You are all wrong!” People do not like that.

What if instead of using “but” you convert every "but" into an “and?” This validates what they have said and adds to it. Try this in your everyday conversation. You will see a very different reaction from those around you. If "and" is uncomfortable or awkward, simply allow the sentence to end and start a new one.

Silence is Your Friend

Never underestimate the great value of silence. A pause to allow people to collect their thoughts or to become uncomfortable with their own non-response provides an opportunity for everyone to seek better understanding. Never speak just to fill the silence.

See and be Seen

Find someone you respect, perhaps a mentor or fellow negotiator, and observe their listening style. Observe their body language, how they listen from their heart, and listen closely for understanding and content. Then ask their honest assessment of your listening skills. Active listening skills can be learned and honed.

Never Stop Learning

Additional relationship building techniques include using the person's name, learning to ask open-ended questions, lead the conversation toward them rather than you and as amazing as it sounds to have to say this – PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN! Refer to Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People for more phenomenal relationship building clues and techniques.

The final key to being an outstanding active listener and being recognized as an exceptional negotiator: Don’t worry about who gets credit for an idea that closes the deal. The goal is to close the deal. If your ego is that large, you probably aren’t an active listener (or a very good negotiator) anyway!

Practicing active listening is harder for some than it is for others, but in negotiations it is a critical skill that is worth the practice.

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