Was It Something I Said?


Sometimes it seems like talking to a customer is about as effective as chatting with a brick wall. Have you ever considered that the problem may not be your customer but your communication skills? Naomi Karten explains why HOW you say something can be just as important as the WAY you say it.

When customers don't do what you advise, perhaps you've caught yourself thinking, "They don't listen!" or "They never listen!" or maybe even, "Those @#$%^ morons, why don't they ever listen!"

When we say others aren't listening to us, we're usually not describing their ability to hear. What we really mean is that we introduced a policy, provided directions, made recommendations, explained procedures, or offered guidance—and we were ignored. The nerve of them, dismissing or circumventing our advice!

Could it be that sometimes the problem is not "them," but us? Could it be that, on occasion, there is something about the way we communicate that causes others to stop listening? Think about interactions you've had with your customers—or for that matter, your employees, teammates, management, vendors, friends, or family members—that led you to conclude that they didn't listen. Might you have been guilty of any of the following?

Using a You're-a-Jerk, I'm-a-Genius Tone of Voice
Did you speak in an offensive, blaming, or arrogant manner? How you say something is at least as important as what you say if you want others to accept your ideas. Your voice is a powerful tool that can build trust, confidence, and respect—or ill will and resentment. If the way you speak conveys a me-smart, you-dumb attitude, those on the receiving end are likely to dismiss both the information and its sender. Even the most astute advice is worth little if presented in an irritating or offensive manner.

Of course, it's disconcertingly easy to slip into an off-putting tone of voice, especially when you're facing tight deadlines, priority switches, and piles and piles of problems. So it's a matter of being mindful: If you want others to be receptive to your ideas, think about how you want to come across to them. If they appear not to have listened, ask yourself, "Would I have taken advice from someone who sounded like me?"

Not Seeing Things Through Their Eyes
Might you have communicated in a way that inadequately considered the other party's perspective? How you see things is invariably different from how others see the very same things. In a session between an IT team and one of its client divisions, the client manager compellingly explained one such difference. In response to the IT team's complaints that clients took too long to provide needed information, she said: "You have to understand that IT represents 100% of what you do. But it represents only 10% of what we do." What an awakening that was for the IT team that, without realizing it, had been oblivious to its clients' numerous obligations. Instead the IT team was wrongly envisioning the clients as devoting 100% of their time to the systems being developed for them.

If you want your customers to listen to what you need from them, try to learn more about their perspective and how it influences their priorities, actions, and decisions. Then present your needs so that you take their concerns into account.

Ignoring the Why Behind the What
Did you present decisions without explaining the reasoning behind them? Might you have come across as if you were issuing arbitrary orders? That's how it often feels to those on the receiving end of new software, hardware upgrades, and changes in technical procedures. Certainly, the policies you've formulated, standards you've set, and decisions you've made were carefully thought out. However, in the absence of any explanation about how they came about and why they matter, your decisions may have appeared to the affected party to be without rationale—just another harebrained scheme of those blankety-blank techies trying to make life difficult!

It's not standards, guidelines, and procedures that people resist; it's being confronted with these rules of the road with no understanding of the whys and wherefores. If acceptance by the other party is important, try explaining what's behind your decisions. Doing so can be an eye opener that leads them to react, "Oh, so that's why you want us to do it that way."Saying What You Didn't Mean
Might you have made the very human mistake of saying something other than what you intended? While distracted by looming deadlines or ornery bugs, you meant to say A, and thought you said A, but actually you said B. And then you wondered why nobody listened.

With my mind invariably racing in numerous directions, I'm often guilty of this one. Once, I was presenting a class to a software group and the manager requested that we start early and take an early lunch break so that those from out of town could get to their flights in time. At 11:30, I announced that we'd break for lunch and resume in 45 minutes. Promptly at 12:15, I was back in the room ready to proceed. And what a lonely place it was. As the minutes passed with no sign of the group, I began to see them as irresponsible, rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate, and other choice adjectives. Until 12:45, that is. At quarter of one on the dot, in they marched, one and all, because that, it turned out, is when I told them to be back. Oops! Of everyone in the room, I was the only one who hadn't listened to me!!

We Have Met the Enemy
The next time you find yourself claiming that customers don't listen, stop and ask yourself whether you might be responsible. Before finding fault with others, do as I now try to remember to do, and consider how you might have created or contributed to the situation. Then, think about what you'll do differently next time to avoid a recurrence.

Are you listening?

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