A Guide to Active Listening: How to Earn People’s Trust Using Your Ears

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This post originally appeared on HubSpot’s Sales Blog. To read more content like this, subscribe to Sales.

Salespeople don’t hold all of the cards anymore. With a quick Google search and some browsing, people can gather as much information about a product as a salesperson has.

As a result, it’s harder for salespeople to demonstrate their expertise. And if they can’t demonstrate expertise, it becomes all the more difficult to establish credibility and eventually build trust. And without credibility and trust, a salesperson will likely lose the interest of their potential buyer … or worse, never really gain their interest. 

So what should salespeople do? Simple: Invest in listening. Trouble is, listening can be very difficult. Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or thinking about what to say next, instead of truly listening to the person on the other end.

To eliminate this habit, I’ve taught the reps who have reported to me over the years a very specific skill: active listening . 

What is Active Listening?

Active listening isn’t only applicable to sales, nor is it a new thing. Dr. Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research, originated the concept of “reflective listening” in the 1940s. In the following years, Richard Farson, a student of his, renamed it “active listening.”

Another student of Rogers, Dr. Thomas Gordon, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, is largely responsible for popularizing the strategy. Gordon’s company, Gordon Training International, has taught thousands of people to build more effective relationships through active listening, among other skills. 

While I haven’t received instruction directly from Gordon Training, I’ve stuck pretty close to their definition of the concept. To make it simple, I teach active listening as a four-step process:

  1. Truly listen to the prospect. 
  2. Feed back the content and feeling of the prospect’s words. 
  3. Confirm you heard the prospect correctly. 
  4. Ask a relevant follow up question to further clarify your understanding of their situation.

1) Truly listen to the prospect.

Sales reps are often too busy talking to listen. Even if they are tuned in, they’re often just listening for a specific word or challenge that tips them off as to whether the prospect needs their product. 

Salespeople who do this are not much different than a dog waiting for a command. (Yes, I might have just called you a dog.) When salespeople do this, prospects can sense it, and they come to the conclusion that the rep simply wants to sell them something regardless of whether they need it or not. It’s a downward spiral that usually leads to nowhere.

But the best salespeople listen differently. They forget about the script (and maybe even their own agenda), and really listen to the words and feelings that a prospect is conveying in their language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. By observing auditory, visual, and physical clues as well as the prospect’s words, a salesperson can truly begin to understand the plight of their prospect and put themselves in the buyer’s shoes.

And this type of listening can make a huge difference by encouraging prospects to open up more, and fostering trust and commitment. So when you’re on the phone or in a meeting with a prospect, ignore the distractions around you, throw out the script, stop worrying about what you’re going to say next, and really pay attention.  

2) Feed back what you just heard back to the prospect.

After a prospect makes a statement that reveals something important about their challenges or what they’re looking for, feed it back to them so they can hear it from you. Your goal with this step is to feed back your understanding; that is to say, your best guess at what’s going on with the other person.

Sometimes, this can be done non-verbally, as in an episode of The Office. But without the benefit of face-to-face presence, inside sales reps must do this verbally.

I usually show salespeople how to use one of the three approaches described below:

  • Repeat what you heard verbatim. This is the easiest route, because the prospect will hear exactly what they just said and can either confirm their meaning or clarify their statement. But be careful not to overuse this approach with a prospect as they might start to doubt your understanding. (Parrots don’t actually understand, right?)
  • Paraphrase what you heard. This is a better approach than simple repetition of what they said. By paraphrasing, you can condense what they said into something more concise. When you do this, your prospect knows you listened because you internalized their speech enough to summarize what they said. However, avoid oversimplifying and leaving out important details — this might shake the buyer’s confidence in you. 
  • Put what you just heard into your own words. This is the best tactic of all. By putting what you just heard into your words, you’re showing your prospect that you have a framework for understanding situations like theirs and can empathize with their struggle. Just be careful not to drift too far from their language. Use unfamiliar vocabulary or terms sparingly, and make sure to explain them when you do. 

By feeding back what you just heard, you’ll make an immediate impression on your prospect. Since most people are not great listeners by nature, your prospect will be appreciative of your ability to listen effectively and summarize. 

Convincing your prospect that they’ve been heard and understood is the most important outcome of this step in the process. But, don’t leave that to chance …

3) Confirm that you’ve heard them correctly.

This critical step is often overlooked. After you’ve paraphrased what your prospect has said, simply ask “Did I communicate that effectively?” or “Do you believe I understand what you have shared with me?” If the prospect says “no” you now have an opportunity to clarify your understanding by asking “Could you clarify for me what I might have missed or got wrong?”

Notice how those questions create an opening for them to give you honest feedback. In contrast, I don’t recommend saying “Does that make sense?” or “Could you explain that better?” or any other question that puts the blame on the prospect for not communicating effectively.

Michelle Adams, VP of Gordon Training says, “When you nail it, you know it and the other person tells you that you did by saying things like: ‘Yes! That’s it!’ or ‘Exactly, you’ve nailed it.’ Or they will begin nodding their head emphatically. If you miss on your active listening , they will tell you that too with: ‘Well, no, it’s not that. It’s more like this … ’ or they will look at you like you’re nuts.”

The following video from Gordon Training shows this step in action.

Once you get good at this part of the process, you’ll be able to create a confirmation bias in your prospect’s mind. Studies have found that we like to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. By repeating what this person has said and then confirming that you’re on the same page, the confirmation bias starts to form, and trust begins to develop.

4) Ask a relevant follow up question.

After you feed back what you’ve heard and confirm that you understand the prospect, your next step is to ask a relevant follow up question.

Resist the temptation to ask closed-ended questions that might make the prospect think that you’re only interested in making the sale. Instead, I recommend asking an open-ended question that encourages your prospect to share more about their goals, challenges, and current plans.

As Saul McLeod points out, open-ended questions allow the person to express what they think in their own words. If you ask the right question, prospects might come to the right conclusions themselves, solving their own problem, or at least starting to believe that a solution exists to help solve their problems. They might even conclude that your solution is the right one. In addition, by getting your prospect to continue thinking critically about their situation (out loud), you stand a better chance of to uncovering the compelling reasons your prospect will (or won’t) buy from you.

Given that HubSpot sells a complex product and methodology that most companies might not know they need (especially in the early days), I added this fourth step to my active listening process. As we tried to convince marketers that they needed to adopt a new way of marketing, I found it valuable to dig deeper into a prospect’s needs with relevant follow up questions, using our qualification framework as a guide.

Examples of active listening

While not sales-related, a great example of active listening comes from one of my favorite shows: Everybody Loves Raymond. Curious to see and hear what active listening looks like in action? Check out these two clips:

5 Uses For Active Listening

Here are a few scenarios in which active listening is particularly useful, and how to apply it in these circumstances.

1) Addressing resistance in the beginning of a call.

I advise salespeople to use active listening early in the sales process to communicate to prospects that they’re there to really listen and help them — not just sell them something.

Here’s what a very early conversation might sound like.

Prospect: I don’t really need help with X.

Salesperson: So, you’re feeling okay with X and aren’t looking for any help with it. Can you say more about that?

Prospect: Well … I don’t have a lot of time.

Salesperson: Seems like I caught you in the middle of something and your time is short.

Prospect: Yeah, but I guess I have a few minutes.

Salesperson: Okay. I often hear one of a few things in situations like yours: A, B, and sometimes C. If any of those are relevant, I have some ideas I could share with you that you might find valuable. Maybe we could talk for a few minutes now and schedule another meeting when you have more time?

Too often, salespeople rush to spit out another question or pitch their value. By repeating back what a prospect expressed (both words and feelings) and asking for clarification, you show that you’re actively listening to them. This clears the way to begin asking questions or positioning value.

2) Identifying compelling reasons for change.

Perhaps the best time to use active listening is when a prospect shares emotion about a challenge they’re having.

Here’s an example:

Prospect: I’m very frustrated that we didn’t achieve our goal of A this year. I thought about it all last month. This really set us back. Worse, I’m just stuck on what to do next year.

[Step 1: Listening]

Salesperson: Hmmm. I see. I can see how that would be frustrating. [Step 2: Feed back]

Prospect. Yeah.

Salesperson: So, it sounds like it’s really important to you that you achieve goal A this year. It really set you back when you didn’t achieve it this year and you’re at a loss on what to do differently next year. [Step 2: Feed back] Did I get that right? [Step 3: Confirm understanding]

Prospect: Yes. Exactly right.

Salesperson: Well, what are you considering doing next year? [Step 4: Ask relevant follow up question]

Prospect: Well, we’ve consider implementing plan B. But, I’m just not sure it’ll work given we don’t know how to execute plan B yet. We just don’t have the right skills within our team.

Salesperson: Have you considered getting some advice from someone who has implemented plan B at other companies like yours?

Prospect: That seems like it’d be a good idea.

3) Recapping an exploratory call.

While it’s never too early to restate the goals and challenges that a prospect has shared with you, empathize, confirm your understanding, and probe further, I find that the end of an exploratory conversation is a great time to showcase that you’ve heard them throughout the call.

Using HubSpot’s qualification framework, I often summarize what I’ve learned from the conversation like so:

Salesperson: We’re coming up on time. We can schedule more time if it makes sense. But, at this point, I suggest we review what we’ve discussed today.

Prospect: That’d be great.

Salesperson: As I understand it, your current goal is A. In order to achieve your goal, you implemented plan B — a plan that didn’t work this year despite your best efforts. You anticipate that challenge C may, once again, get in the way of implementing plan B and achieving goal A within timeline D and budget E.

Prospect: That’s exactly right. Impressive recap, actually.

Salesperson: We also discussed how plan F — a component of our solution — might be able to help you overcome challenge C.

Prospect: Well … I’m not sure I completely understand plan F.

Salesperson: Okay. We went through some of the aspects of plan F, but I agree that we haven’t fully covered it. In our next call, would you like to go into more depth on plan F, really sketch it out, and make sure that we’re in full agreement that it’ll help you achieve goal A?

Prospect: That sounds great. Thank you for your help so far.

Salesperson: You’re welcome. When would you like to schedule our next call?

4) Addressing objections.

The best way to avoid an objection is to anticipate and address it proactively. Effective application of active listening can help you do just that.

Nonetheless, it’s rare that you can anticipate and address every objection before closing time. Not to worry — active listening shines here too. Here’s an example.

Prospect: I’m really concerned about plan F. I worry it won’t work well for our team.

Salesperson: Got it. We certainly don’t want to get you started if you’re not clear on how you’re going to be successful with the plan. [Step 2: Feed back] Are there specific things about plan F that you don’t think will work? [Step 4: Relevant follow up question]

Prospect: Yes. Mostly, I’m just not sure we have the right people to implement G.

Salesperson: Okay. We talked about Mary potentially doing G, but you’re concerned that won’t work? [Step 2: Feed back]

Prospect: Right.

Salesperson: Is there anyone else on your current team that you think can do G? Or do you think that we could carve out time for Mary so that she can learn how to do G? [Step 4: Ask relevant follow up question]

Prospect: I think it’s possible to teach Mary, but is there a way that you could just do G for us in the meantime?

Salesperson: That’s outside of the scope we defined for our work, but let’s revisit. We’ve certainly done that for other clients and can jump in until you’ve identified an internal person to handle it for you.

5) Closing business.

Dave Kurlan invented my favorite closing technique: “The Inoffensive Close.” If you’ve done everything correctly during your sales process, closing should be something that just happens. if you need a little nudge, the Inoffensive Close is the simplest way to ask for the business.

As Dave describes in his book Baseline Selling, there are three questions involved in the Inoffensive Close:

  1. Do you believe I understand your issues, your problems, and your concerns?
  2. Do you believe I/we have the expertise to solve your problem effectively?
  3. Would you like my/our help?

As you can see, listening during the sales process as well as confirming understanding are necessary steps if you want to use this closing approach. 

But even when you’ve run a great sales process, prospects don’t always answer with an emphatic “yes” after each of these questions. That’s when active listening can be very handy, once again. 

Prospect: I’m not quite positive that you have the right expertise. I’m concerned that you’re not the best provider for a company like ours.

Salesperson: Okay. Let me make sure I understand. You’re concerned we wouldn’t be the best provider. [Step 2: Feed back] Is there a competitor of ours that you think might have more experience in your industry? [Step 4: Relevant follow up question]

Prospect: Well, not so much in the industry, but they’ve had more experience with cultures like ours. At least, that’s my opinion.

Salesperson: So it’s more about the culture of your organization as opposed to your industry? [Step 3: Confirm understanding]

Prospect: Yes. Exactly.

Salesperson: But it sounds like the rest of the team might disagree with you a bit? [Step 4: Relevant follow up question]

Prospect: A bit would be an understatement. Some of my colleagues speak very highly of the work you’ve already done for us.

Salesperson: I see. So, it sounds like my company has some mega fans amongst your team. And we certainly have done a lot to help them over the years. But you think that our competitor is better suited to help you, given the culture of your organization. Would it help if I could demonstrate to you what we’ve done for other companies with similar cultures to yours?

Prospect: Yes. I think that would make the decision a lot easier.

Salesperson: If I can do that effectively, would you hire us to help you instead of the other firm? 

Prospect: Yes. 

As you can see from these examples, active listening is a skill that can be used in almost any stage of the sales process, from the first interaction all the way to closing the deal.

Practicing Active Listening

While active listening is a relatively simple skill to understand, it is difficult to master. The good news is that as with any skill, excellence comes with practice.

The nice thing about active listening is that you’ll know it when you’ve learned to do it effectively. Your prospects will tell you if you’re on the right track. But I find that new salespeople need a safe environment where they can practice active listening . With this in mind, I asked a few HubSpot sales managers to share some tips for coaching active listening .

Here are a few from Greg Brown, a top sales performer turned sales manager: 

If you feel yourself tuning out in the middle of a conversation or thinking about your next question or statement, do something to get out of your own head. Tap the desk or snap a rubber band on your wrist. Turn off all distractions including cell phones, extra tabs in your browser, your email and chat clients. 

If you find yourself wanting to ask a question or make a statement, write it down so you can ask it later. This will free you up so you can listen to what the prospect is saying.

Jen Cooley, a HubSpot sales manager, plays a fun game with her new salespeople in order to teach them how to use this four-step active listening process. It’s had an impressive impact on her team:

Of the four steps to active listening , I find that #2 and #3 are fairly easy but #1 and #4 are more difficult to teach.

One of my favorite exercises to run is a “hot potato” game. I describe a real sales scenario and we do a role play. I start the role play by making a statement and then tossing the potato (or any object that I have handy) to someone in the room. When you get the potato, you have to keep the conversation going by feeding back and asking a relevant follow up question. After completing these steps, the rep then tosses the potato to another salesperson. We repeat this until we have the prospect’s complete story.

Usually, different people in the room hear different details because they’re listening more effectively. As the story unfolds and those details become critical to understand, the rest see the importance of step #1. They also learn different ways to ask relevant follow up questions, helping them improve at step #4.

As a result of these group exercises, I’ve seen some significant changes in individual performance. It dramatically improves reps’ ability to qualify effectively and tailor our services to the individual prospect’s needs.

Sales call film review provides another great opportunity to teach active listening . Dan Macadam, another HubSpot sales manager, does this frequently with his team. Here’s how he describes its impact:

When we review calls, I often hear my reps completely misunderstanding a prospect’s questions or statements. They end up taking the conversation in a direction that loses the prospect’s interest.

When I hear this, I rewind back to the part where they misheard something important. Then, I’ll ask the rep to repeat back to me what the prospect said. We’ll talk about why this phrase was important and how the conversation might have went differently had they practiced active listening .

As a result of this process, we’ve uncovered missed opportunities a number of times, enabling the rep to to get the opportunity back on track on the next call. I’ve even had salespeople call prospects right away, apologize, explain that they think they missed something important, and then have the dialog they should have had. We’ve won quite a few deals this way. And just as importantly, I’m teaching my salespeople how to use active listening in their future sales calls.

In a world where buyers don’t rely on salespeople for information, salespeople need to establish expertise and build trust quickly and with every interaction. The mutual understanding that active listening enables is one of the best ways to earn and keep that trust throughout the sales process.

If you begin employing active listening in your interactions and your sales increase as a result, share your story in the comments. In the meanwhile, if you need more encouragement before you start employing active listening in your sales calls, maybe Abbott and Costello can provide it to you. They gifted us with not only one of the most memorable comedy skits of all time, but probably the worst attempt at active listening ever: 

With active listening, reps can start more conversations, uncover challenges and goals, handle objections, and close more effectively. When in doubt, close your mouth and open your ears.

Thank you to Michelle Adams, Mike Renahan, and Emma Snider for their contributions to this post.

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Article first found on pcaputa@hubspot.com (Pete Caputa)

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