What is empathic listening and how to improve it?

The internet is a noisy place. It's filled with bad advice for salespeople on how to speak to customers, how to nail your cold calls, how to refine your 30-second elevator pitch, and how to control a sales conversation.

The more you look around you, the more you will notice how salespeople are always taught to channel their inner car salesman to push, persuade, and provoke their prospects into closing a deal. Simply put, there's just too much talk about how to talk.

Ironically, developing a gift of gab isn't exactly the kind of advice that salespeople need today. What you need is the power to listen empathetically to your customers.

When you listen with empathy you to build deep emotional connections with customers, which helps you have meaningful, in-depth conversations. It's a soft skill that benefits the sales team and other functions like customer success, product development, and marketing.

This post will look at what empathetic (also called 'empathic') listening is, why it is important, and how your sales and customer success teams can master it.

What empathic listening means

'Listen with empathy' sounds like one of those phrases that executive coaches repeat in personal development seminars—and rightly so. These days, listening 'empathetically' is increasingly becoming an important skill set for all customer-facing teams.

Empathic listening means to listen with your whole self —giving your undivided attention (both intellectually and emotionally) to your prospects, customers, and potential partners to enhance your relationship with them. The key is not to be consumed by a preconceived notion and, more importantly, without the temptation to respond or interrupt.

Looking at the data from our online meetings, we at Avoma have found that the recommended talk range is 40%–60%. And if you are talking for more than 60% of the total time on the call, you are probably not listening enough.

In a world that doesn't stop talking, listening with empathy is incredibly hard. It takes courage, patience and some amount of openness to being vulnerable, to listen with an open mind rather than talking. It's especially worrisome in business circles because sales and customer success teams are taught to either go hard or go home.

But sales is not like a rap battle where you wait for your turn to one-up your prospects. The role of sales and customer success is to help customers get closer to their desired goals—and empathetic listening helps you understand how you can help them in their journey.

It is not that far from active listening—the technique to carefully listen and process a speaker's message, observing their non-verbal cues without being distracted. in fact, you add a layer of emotional intelligence (EI) to the conversation by being more mindful and empathetic.

Active Listening: The Most Important Sales Skill You Need In Remote Selling

But, it's easy to confuse empathic listening for keeping quiet even when you're supposed to talk. Listening with empathy doesn't mean you have to mute yourself until your customers run out of words. It means you listen with the intent to understand your prospects, slow down and internalize what they mean, and ask clarifying questions.

Why it becomes important in sales and customer success

Empathic listening gives you more power than talking. For instance, when you let your customers speak freely without interruption, you peel off many layers of their psychology to better understand them. That's because the deeper people go into their soapboxes, the better they reveal their inner motivations.

Your ability to listen empathetically to your customers directly influences your ability to sell them an idea. In sales, it lets you understand your customer expectations better and handle objections more efficiently. You can use the active listening techniques to qualify the right prospects during a discovery call, identify their pain points, understand their current processes, and get a sense of what they are trying to achieve.

Tips for objection handling during your next sales call

In customer success, when you listen empathetically, you build an emotional bond with your customers and understand their real sentiment. After they start using your product, listening closely to customers is critical for the success team to know the nuances of their use cases, help them make the most of your product, and listen to potential customer churn signals before they become irrecoverable.

Eventually, keeping your ears to the ground helps your success team move customers closer to the desired solution.

Steps to become an empathetic listener

Let's look at the five key steps to ace your listening skills that will help you build healthy relationships—not just with customers but also with people in your professional and personal life. So sit straight, close all the tabs on your browser (already an empathetic step), and let's go.

1. Listen with intention

The process of listening empathetically starts with a conscious decision to give your whole self to listen to what your prospects or customers have to say. That means deliberately tuning out all the sources of distractions and being completely immersed in a conversation.

It's natural for our minds to wander off and think about your next meeting or look at your phone notifications when you have back-to-back meetings every day. Other times, it's tempting for us to form our judgment about a customer or cut them short because we want to clarify something. But these shouldn't be reasons for you to give your customers less attention.

We need to be fully present in the moment. When you don't go the full distance, you are only half-listening to your prospects, customers or partners. And trust me—they can tell when you're not paying full attention to them.

It's called empathic listening because you have to see the world from your customers' perspectives. Imagine yourself in their shoes when you hear them explain their situation, challenges, expectations, and concerns.

Sometimes, though you are listening 100%, you may feel that you want to take notes to don't miss out on the to-dos. But you can always let a note taking software take care of those parts and focus your energies on making the conversation count.

Next time your mind drifts away to other things in your to-do list, remember the FOCUS principle—follow one course until successful. This principle will help you give 100% attention to each customer interaction throughout the day—one conversation at a time. 

With more practice, you can be genuinely curious to listen to your customers' problems and be emotionally involved in the conversation. And for all you know, sometimes it could be a golden opportunity to identify potential churn signals.

Identifying potential customer churn

2. Allow time before you respond

Silence is golden—when you leverage it to your advantage. When we are in a customer call, it feels awkward to remain quiet for more than 3–5 seconds after a customer stops talking. Not necessarily. If done well, it helps the prospect or customer feel that you are taking the time to reflect on their concern and give a thoughtful response.

As the French composer, Claude Debussy once said, "Music is the space between the notes." A bit of silence in between your conversation is healthy and encouraging. And, the opposite is true as well. When you are quick to respond to customers, it might mean that you didn't listen to them fully.

Sometimes, it's ok not to have an immediate answer to a question. And that's where conversation intelligence tools come to the rescue. Just create a snippet of the prospect's question and share it with anyone across your organization who can help you answer the question.

Silence helps. Trust me; I learnt it the hard way.

For instance, pausing long enough sometimes allows your prospects and customers to correct their statements only if you don't rush to complete their sentences. It's perhaps the reason why silence is also a powerful technique in negotiation. Robert Greene, in his magnum opus 48 Laws of Power, says:

"Always say less than necessary. Powerful people know how to impress others by saying less. The more you say, the more likely it is that you will end up saying something foolish. As people are constantly trying to work out what others appear to be thinking, silence makes them feel uncomfortable."

3. Paraphrase what you hear

It sounds way simpler than it is. After all, paraphrasing is just parroting your customers' speech verbatim—right? You would be surprised how difficult it is to do that if you aren't paying attention.

Paraphrasing is "power-phrasing"—it allows you to check-in with your customers to confirm that you understood them correctly. One thing that most people crave in this world is being understood, and paraphrasing helps you do that. Customers appreciate it when you validate their thoughts and speech with them before responding.

People hate repeating themselves over and over again. When you summarize what you heard from them (probably even better than how they said it), it signals your prospects and customers that you were listening intently, you got everything correct, and you care about what they said. As a result, paraphrasing helps everyone get to the point sooner and keeps the conversation short, focused, and on track.

Here are a few examples of how to paraphrase your customers correctly:

"What you're saying is..."

"If I understand this correctly, you are saying that..."

"Correct me if I'm wrong here, are you saying….?" 

Paraphrasing gives both parties the opportunity to playback the discussion in real-time before proceeding further with the conversation. Alternatively, it also gives you both a chance to fact-check yourself in case you got anything wrong.

4. Ask clarifying questions

As a follow-up to paraphrasing your customers, ask clarifying questions to dig deeper into the customer's psychology. Clarifying questions are open-ended questions that probe into the details of who, when, where, why, and how.

The opposite of asking open-ended questions is a closed question that lets customers answer in simple "yes" and "no." They overlook many contexts that are important for you to reach a better understanding of your prospects or customers.

The good thing about asking clarifying questions is—it's easy to come up with them. If you are paying attention to what they are saying, clarifying questions are just good follow-up questions that encourage them to elaborate their statements.

Here are a few examples:

"Did you have a budget in mind to start with?"

"Does this make sense? Have I answered your question?"

"Why do you think that is the case?"

5. Make it part of your everyday habit

The worst thing about most advice that sales and customer success teams get is that they think that the tips are exclusive to their customer conversations. It's no good to practice your listening skills only when you are on a call with prospects and customers.

On the other hand, you can develop your empathic listening skills if you embrace them as part of your team culture. It helps you even in your asynchronous conversations (extrapolating the empathetic values to Slack conversations, emails, etc.).

Make active and empathetic listening integral to your work ethics and personality traits. Practice it with your friends, family members, and strangers that you meet outside of work.

Only when you adopt empathic listening as an everyday habit can you make it a natural part of your behavior. The next time you review a sales deal at work, sit for a parent-teacher meeting, talk to a stranger in the park, make sure you commit to listening empathetically. Practice it in your everyday environment so that it becomes second nature to you and comes out effortlessly during your customer conversations.

Add a new skill to your résumé

The most valuable currency in the crowded business landscape today is getting people's attention. And it's a two-way street—you get their attention when you give them your full attention. Listening to your prospects, customers and partners are as important a skill as any other selling skills that sales and success teams need today.

Ready to put your listening skills to practice? Start with evaluating where you stand today. Sign-up for Avoma and get deeper insights into where you stand, what can be improved, how you can collaborate cross-functionally to deliver the best for your prospects and customers.

Inspire on!