Actively Listening

Developing the skill of really listening will enable you to be a better seller—and better person.

By Carole Mahoney

Throughout high school, college, and sometimes just for fun, I was a waitress (and hostess, busgirl, dishwasher, and prep-cook). You name a restaurant job, and I did it.

While I learned a lot from those experiences, the one that stuck with me the most was how we had to communicate.

If you have never worked in a restaurant before, it’s almost always barely controlled chaos. There are constant changes at an incredibly fast pace, and sometimes with hostile people. (Hangry = Hungry + Angry and is as real as road rage, my friends.)

One busy Saturday night with a line of people out the door, one of my tables ordered a meal without onions as they were highly allergic. You can tell where this is going, right?

I wrote down the order, made a note on it to not include onions, and delivered it to the kitchen. When the chef confirmed the order back to me, I immediately replied, “Yes, the burger is without onions,” and left the kitchen to get their drinks.

Twenty minutes later, I brought their order to the table and my poor guest immediately started coughing. There were hot steaming grilled onions all over his burger! As he ran out of the restaurant, I stormed into the kitchen and yelled, “I told you no onions!”

Your buyers are leaving clues for you, but if the voice in your head is too loud, you will never notice them.

Bewildered, the chef shot back, “Did you hear me repeat it? Do you know I heard it?”

I hadn’t confirmed he heard it; I honestly had no idea. Both the chef and I had been so wrapped up in what we needed to do, we never stopped for a second to actually listen and confirm what the other person heard or did not hear. As a result, someone else suffered for it.

Controlling Emotions

This happens in sales conversations every day. We (and our buyers) are so wrapped up in what we need to hear, strategizing in our minds about what to say or not say next, that we miss the important details.

The ability to control our emotions in the moment is the third most common weakness among professional salespeople, with 67%—two of every three people—out of 2.2 million assessed for not controlling their emotions by Objective Management Group, which does sales force evaluations.

As a business owner who sells, this is even more difficult. After all, our business is our baby, our life’s work, and how we feed ourselves and our loved ones. Of course, it’s emotional!

The problem is that when we are overly emotional, talking to ourselves, waiting to hear something we can pounce on to pitch our solution—we are not actively listening.

LinkedIn surveyed B2B buyers and reported the No. 1 trait that they want from sellers is the ability to actively listen. When we feel listened to—and heard—it helps us to trust others.

Think about the last time you tried to have a conversation with someone who was looking at their phone—did you feel understood?

The hidden side effect of not actively listening is that we miss important details of what our buyers say. Just like me and the chef.

In a recent livestream I was on, five participants tried to sell me on their solutions. I said phrases and clues specifically for them to pick up on and dig into, but they all missed them. Nearly all of them went right into talking about how they solve for XYZ.

Your buyers are leaving clues for you, but if the voice in your head is too loud, you will never notice them.

Following the Steps

So how do you better manage your emotions and become a better active listener?

Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. In his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? he writes about the crucial role mindfulness has on active listening and how it is so difficult when society rewards self-promotion.

He states that if you want to be a better listener, decades of research suggest you work on the four areas of focus, empathy, self-control, and inclusion.

Outside of that inner work, what do you need to do in the conversation to be sure you are actively listening? Practice the four steps I am going to enumerate in your sales conversations. Better yet, practice these steps on everyone around you.

You’ll notice then how the conversations change, and over time, how the relationships change. Not only will you have more open conversations with buyers and customers, but you may also find that your working and personal relationships have less tension and misunderstanding and deeper connections of trust

And those four steps?

  1. Stop talking. We often talk a lot when we are nervous. Taking a pause and a breath or two can help calm your nerves and refocus you on the present moment.
  2. Be fully present and listen. Engage all your senses. What does their body language tell you? What does their tone of voice sound like?
  3. Repeat what you heard. Not necessarily word for word like a robot but summarize the key phrases and points you heard.
  4. Ask a question to better understand the details of what you heard. When you ask open-ended questions about something they have said, it will help you to better understand your buyer. When buyers share their thoughts, they become open to other ideas even if it is contrary to what they thought before.

Sales is managing a change in behavior—both in yourself and in your buyers. Selling is about connecting, communicating, and helping other humans. The better human person you are, the better seller you will be.

Mahoney Offers Tips on YouTube for Sales Leaders and Sellers
Unbound Sales Growth columnist Carole Mahoney provides tips for sales leaders and sellers on YouTube. Past topics have included how to get over fears and have better conversations, how to become a top salesperson, and cognitive behavioral tips to sell on value. To watch these videos and future ones, visit Mahoney’s Linktree webpage and click “YouTube” in the drop-down menu.
Have a Sales or Marketing Question for Mahoney? Let Us Know!
Is there a sales or marketing issue that you have wondered about for a long time? Do you wish you or your team had a technique for better closing sales or promoting your business and its products and services? Unbound Sales Growth columnist Carole Mahoney can help. Email WWJ Editor Thad Plumley at and he will arrange for Mahoney to answer your question in a video at

Carole Mahoney, as the founder of Unbound Growth, has coached Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial MBA students on sales and been featured as a top sales coach by Ambition and Sales Hacker. You can contact her directly at