Sideroad Expert Interviews

Monday, August 20, 2007

What is a Marketing Coach?

Marketing Consultant Allison BlissMarketing consultant, Allison Bliss, is the Founder and CEO of Allison Bliss Consulting, one of the top full service marketing & communications firms in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her company rebels against misleading, pushy, spam-filled marketing offering Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurs customized business and marketing services.

1) What is a marketing coach? How does a marketing coach differ from a marketing consultant?

I’m not sure that there is a “defined” difference between marketing coaches and marketing consultants. Generally a coach doesn’t have hands-on or bottom-line experience running a business, while a marketing consultant usually does. There is, however, a distinct difference between a business coach or life coach and a marketing coach/consultant, also divided by practical experience. The coaching “model” uses guidance techniques, which I also use as a consultant to support clients as they work to determine next steps and create an action plan to meet their goals. In fact, my clients started calling me a “marketing coach”, while I’d always just called myself a consultant. I would say the definition is in the eye of the beholder.

To try define the term:
A marketing coach or consultant works with business owners or managers to develop clientele and to recommend strategies and marketing or operational tools that will work to meet the company’s goals – usually to increase revenue, or for efficiency so the owners aren’t spending every waking minute on their business. Whether a company wants to generate more online sales, decrease its staff size, or reach a broader market segment, a marketing coach creates an action plan using precisely the strategies needed to achieve the actual goals.

A good coach or consultant will be able to advise the steps to take, when to take each step (timing is critical in marketing), and outline what the costs will be. A coach teaches you when, why, and how to employ a full range of marketing tools – from redesigning a website, to creating articles or white papers, starting a blog, conducting podcasts, and developing ad campaigns. And finally, a coach helps you find highly successful strategies that you can leverage without spending a cent.

A business in its start-up phase probably doesn’t have the time or cash needed to experiment with various marketing strategies. So, a coach incorporates the owner’s goals and ideas, along with the coach’s recommended strategies, into a unique, step-by-step action plan. She guides new businesses through the inevitable stages of under-pricing their products or services (almost everyone has done that in the beginning), finding the clients who are truly a great fit for the company’s offerings, and learning how to ramp up when demand is high so owners are not working ridiculously long days. Techniques, programs, tools, and qualified help should be offered by a good coach.

For companies that have been around 15+ years, the issues are quite different. Often the owner is bored and needs help creating new offerings that will again stimulate or challenge that entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps the market has radically changed, so the business needs a completely new set of clients, services, or other income streams to support growth. A coach should guide business owners through these and all the stages of growth, including those where people mistakenly think they should give up.

A marketing coach who also has a marketing consulting agency comes equipped with a tested arsenal of resources, from databases to designers, and bookkeepers to benchmarks. Using vendors who are not capable of filling your needs can cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of wasted hours – so use only tested contacts, and have your coach carefully manage them. That’s the advantage of using a coach with a consulting agency – there is a tested and trusted set of expert designers, web teams, writers, coaches, publicity experts, or TV producers to help all kinds of businesses.

2) What are the main reasons a business would need to hire a marketing coach?
Any company can benefit from the wisdom, connections, resources, and experience of a marketing coach to save time and expensive mistakes. Find a coach who has had full responsibility for running a company – from developing the vision to hiring and firing, management, marketing and financials; creating operational systems; developing sales; merchandising (for retail); and training employees – so they can bring you their experience and resources.

When you first begin to discuss your business and marketing ideas with your coach, her experience and intelligence should immediately become obvious. If you feel like you’re not connecting don’t prolong the agony! You (and your company) can’t afford to spend time with someone who hasn’t been out in the trenches herself.

3) Is a marketing coach going to help drive bottom line sales, or are they more appropriate for branding campaigns?
A top-notch marketing coach will bring experience into the “marketing plan” stage of the process, establishing which strategies and marketing (or management) tools will help drive the bottom line. Some coaches can help with branding; some haven’t the resources, agency of experts, or experience. Naturally, full-service agencies offer cost and time-management efficiencies for clients. When the same marketing coach is handling your marketing plans, while also supervising your marketing communications and branding materials, a company’s purpose, primary marketing messages, and coordination of timing (a key to successful marketing) can be managed more efficiently and less expensively.

4) Am I going to be charged for an initial consultation? If so, what kind of fees are common?
Ideally, a marketing coach will discuss your needs first, to determine if she is an ideal fit for your company. If not, she should be able to refer you to a company or to someone with the right expertise. However, once a company has checked out the marketing coach’s experience, references, and qualifications to help them, all discussions and written communications are billed. Different coaches have different prices, but our company charges $585 for a pre-paid package of 5 hours of marketing coaching – often that’s all a business owner may need to move forward with the guidance, answers, strategies, or resources from those sessions. If more help is required, or marketing materials need to be prepared, those costs should be estimated in advance. Materials can range from $20 to $2 million, depending on the complexity of the job. TV commercials are at the higher end, business cards or letterhead at the lower end. Ask the coach for samples or to review her agency’s portfolio to help you make a decision.

5) How do marketing coaches usually bill? Can you do a pay-for-performance deal? Could they work on a commission basis? What are the options?
Pricing usually depends on the qualifications and experience of the coach. Since a coach is not in control of company staff, marketing execution, management, or finances, but is just advising a company on steps to take, the performance measurement is dependent on the business following the advice of its coach or consultant. In a sense, it’s the same for a personal trainer: if the client doesn’t do the bicep curls, they won’t get muscle definition they seek.

6) What qualities and experience should you look for in a marketing coach?
A qualified marketing coach should have experience in dozens of industries, so she can bring you ideas that work in market segments other than yours. Do your homework, and make sure that your coach has a solid track record in marketing communications. For example, if your coach is advising you about building your website, she should understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO); ask for examples of successes in this area. Your coach should have built blogs and websites, written articles that have been published, developed trade show exhibits, created ad campaigns, achieved on-line and off-line public relations placements, created sales materials (from business cards to elaborate brochures), produced events, presented workshops to organizations, and conducted actual sales. Sound like a tall order? It should be! Your company’s future success depends on it.

Unless a marketing coach comes to the party with a sizable network, she probably isn’t engaged enough in the community or in your market to find you great opportunities, or at least to recommend where you should seek them. Your ideal coach should be actively engaged in business, political, educational, or community associations, keep current on strategies, resources and technology that can help you, and have contacts in industries that will serve you directly or indirectly. For example, if you’re trying to meet small business owners to inform them of your professional services, your coach should be able to connect you with 5 to 10 great associations. Ask your potential coach which associations she belongs to; this will give you an idea of her ability to help you make beneficial contacts.

A great coach should come equipped with a tested arsenal of resources, from databases to designers, and bookkeepers to benchmarks. Using vendors who are not capable of filling your needs can cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of wasted hours – so use only tested contacts, and have your Coach carefully manage them.

7) How do I ensure I have a good fit with the coach?
You should have a good sense of this from reviewing a coach’s experience, checking references, and certainly after your first meeting when you hear her advice.

I believe it’s crucial for people to have easy access to their coach. You may need a second opinion on a large proposal you’re about to send out. Or, you may want someone to review your website updates before you pay a large sum to your web designer to make those changes. You need a coach who can respond reasonably quickly so you get help at these critical junctures. Ask your coach how they would handle your requests. For example, I don’t charge my clients if they just have a brief email question about something I can answer quickly without researching or analysis. But if they need a major edit or market research, or if it’s a complex issue requiring us to break it down in a session to determine the right course of action, then I charge for that time. It’s always clear in advance, though, so that clients know when they’re being charged.

I’ve heard horror stories of company owners discussing marketing issues with consultants when they had no idea the clock was running. They were then sent a huge bill – a very unpleasant surprise. So, I think it’s a good idea to ask your coach or consultant for clarification on billing procedures so that each time you call or email, you’ll know what to expect.

8) If I hire a marketing coach, what can I do to get the most value from the experience?
Put the strategies your coach gives you in place so you can generate results. Ask your coach about virtually anything you don’t have the answer to. Write a list of questions to bring to your first meeting (my company uses an assessment for this, so we fully understand what a client wants and needs). If you’re getting results, it’s probably a good sign that it’s working.

Related Articles:
An Introduction to Ethnic Marketing by Michael Bolden
Advertising During the Holidays by Maria Andreu
What Marketing Can Do For You by Michelle Pariza Wacek


» Permanent link to What is a Marketing Coach?

Monday, August 13, 2007

André Taylor: Entrepreneur Coach

entrepreneur coach Andre TaylorEntrepreneur coach, André Taylor is a speaker, advisor, and author on the topic of entrepreneurship. For more than 20 years, he has helped build companies into industry leaders.

1) You’ve come up with the phrase “Natural Entrepreneur.” What are the core elements of a “natural entrepreneur”?
I believe at its core, entrepreneurship is about

turning personal benefits – talent, insight, and creativity – into a collective benefit for all. However, we must see our natural benefits. Being an entrepreneur should and can be an extraordinary experience. It’s personal expression unlike any other. Once you become more imaginative about your own possibilities, you’ll find that you can touch countless others through your work and dedication to your business.

The myth is that a select few can start and run a company successfully. Some believe either you have it or you don’t. I used to believe that until I met hundreds of “regular” people who started their own businesses with fabulous results. In the past we wouldn’t consider these individuals entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs were “visionaries,” and sometimes romantically reckless.

The good news is that all of the dialogue about entrepreneurship over the last twenty years has debunked the myth that individuals with the entrepreneur “gene” are rare. There are many more people out there who now know they have the ability to create businesses. They just need information, belief, courage, skill, and determination. The natural entrepreneur concept is simply this: We have natural skills, abilities, and instincts that translate into the key needs of the marketplace and into what is needed in a business. I work with individuals and organizations to pinpoint these strengths and turn them into economic assets.

2) Is there a basic skill set that successful entrepreneurs share? Or does it depend on the industry or idea?
I think the main thing that successful entrepreneurs have is the ability to deal with the ambiguity that surfaces, and then remains a permanent part of building an enterprise around their passion. No matter how long you are in business, whether you start with no money, or tons of money you are never quite sure day-to-day whether you are standing still or advancing.

In my view an entrepreneur must:

  1. Identify positive and encouraging information – all the time.
  2. Be a learner with the capacity to interpret and digest lessons from business situations – sometimes very painful lessons.
  3. Be demanding, yet patient – mainly with yourself.
  4. Interpret failure differently than most – yet expect success.
  5. See entrepreneurship as a better choice, something that you’re committed to because you’re focused on making a clear contribution to the marketplace or world – not approach your business as something to merely “try out.”

3) What are the most common mistakes you see entrepreneurs making?
While most entrepreneurs start out excited about the opportunities with their new enterprises, many entrepreneurs wind up in difficult places with their business. Soon after they get their business going they feel:
  • Overworked and a slave to their clients and employees.
  • Like they’re trying to do everything for everyone.
  • Like workaholics and micro-managers, some suffering health problems.
  • Like they’ve developed a business that is at odds with their real goals and abilities.
  • Like they need to focus on a small part of the business out of necessity, rather than the big picture.
I believe these mistakes come from not asking the right questions when the business is started. I’m talking about questions such as:
  • “What do I really love to do?”
  • “How do my talents and abilities translate into business success?”
  • “What do I never want to do?”

These questions seem obvious but most people starting a business are not thinking that the first phase of their development is to get themselves in the right chair. They simply see a zillion different things that have to get done and they get to work. Once they become conditioned to this approach they may never see that it is their relentless dedication and resourcefulness that is robbing their business of its potential or killing it entirely.

4) Is it enough to “do what you love, and the money will follow,” as the old saying goes? Can you do so, and fail?
There are many people out there “doing what they love” and they’re broke. Doing what you love is a key component of the success formula but I would put it another way. Entrepreneurship is doing what is necessary so that you can put yourself in a position to do what you love. To me, it is this understanding which creates “the soul of a successful enterprise.”

I believe, when it’s all said and done, it’s the way you think, and in particular it’s your emotions – how you engage, balance, and mobilize your feelings, which in turn, inform your actions – that will have more to do with your success than anything else. There’s money, customers, and the right employees for those who will confidently move ahead, take careful steps, and think through their moves, with the guidance of capable advisors. But every action from the spark of the idea, through the start-up and growth stages has to be about getting people in the right chairs – particularly the founder.

5) Many entrepreneurs eschew business plans, as ideas and markets tend to change quickly, and flexibility is one of their greatest assets against larger competitors. Is this the right move, or a dangerous one?
I believe emphasis on the textbook business planning process is one of the worst things to happen to entrepreneurial education. It’s great for companies seeking rapid growth or with an infusion of venture capital but that’s not the typical entrepreneurial experience. Most entrepreneurs do not need to spend months trying to write the perfect plan.

Having said that I am entirely convinced that if an entrepreneur does not think ahead, figure out how he or she will fund, source, market, sell, deliver, and profit from the company’s offerings, the business is doomed to fail.

I favor a “living plan,” approach – something the entrepreneur can carry around in their pocket or PDA reflecting the business agenda, answers to key questions typically addressed in a business plan, and key metrics. I think this document has to be streamlined so the founder understands it and can work with it as a tool. I believe this document is something that should be adjusted weekly or monthly.

Entrepreneurs need to plan, but it has to be incorporated in their day-to-day activities and adjusted, adjusted, and adjusted.

6) One of your insights is that “Success Is Natural. Failure Is Hard Work.” Can you elaborate on that, with an example?
This statement probably sounds very new age, but I have found that many entrepreneurs, including myself, make things entirely too difficult and complicated. There are usually great business development opportunities staring you in the face, but we are conditioned to look away, misinterpret, or not respond appropriately – or at all.

I recently had a situation that makes this point. I was in discussion with a firm about presenting a series of workshops for their company during an executive retreat. The last conversation I had with my contact there, she mentioned that she would be in New York for a few days, combining a business trip with a family holiday. She was going to be bringing her elderly dad to New York City for the first time.

When I got off the telephone I had a thought. It was this: “I’ll bet they’re going to see a Broadway show. It might even be The Color Purple – a show where a friend of mine is one of the principal cast members. I could ask my friend to invite her backstage, autograph her program, and she could meet some of the other cast members.” For some reason, I dismissed the thought, and never came back to it.

Yesterday I called my contact to see how our deal was progressing and how her holiday in New York was. She said: “I was very busy during the day, but we had a wonderful time every evening. My dad especially loved seeing The Color Purple.” I then explained: “I coulda, shoulda, blah, blah, blah.”

My instincts told me exactly what to do for my client but I didn’t listen. Success would have been showing my client a great time. That was easy. I knew how to do it. The opportunity was delivered to me on a silver platter. I failed at that and now I’m trying to make up for it.

There are tons of examples like this in business every day. Companies market like crazy, but don’t return telephone calls. Publishers destroy books that could help educate people in poor neighborhoods and entire countries. Employees are not given the latitude to do something extra and creative for clients because companies adhere to alienating policies and procedures. There are hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities that naturally present themselves to us daily to become more successful. I believe our biggest challenge is seeing it and having the will to act on it.

7) There’s a meme now about working “smart instead of hard”. Can you avoid hard work and be successful as an entrepreneur?
You cannot avoid hard work for long and be a successful entrepreneur. There are some entrepreneurs that hit the market just right and they do well. An example might be here in New York, during the hot summer, we have entrepreneurs who buy cases of water, make the bottles ice cold, and then sell them to drivers stopped at red lights. That’s smart and involves a bit of hard work as well. During the record heat this summer these guys did really well. But the moment well-financed and better competition rolls in or the process is banned by the city these entrepreneurs are out of business. To keep the business going they’re going to need to work smart and hard. They’re going to need alternative strategies and a whole new effort to get to market.

It gets back to the Natural Entrepreneur concept. It was natural for J. Darius Bikoff to pop a vitamin and down a bottle of cold water after exercising. It occurred to him that he could mix the two as an energy drink and market it as a product. That was smart. In fact one of the brands he created is called “Smart Water,” but it took hard work to sell it door to door until he got the company off the ground.

Now we know the rest of the story. A few months ago Coca-Cola agreed to buy the company Bikoff founded in a $4.1 billion deal. In my book that’s some smart water, and the ultimate example of succeeding naturally.

Related Articles:
Entrepreneurs and Loneliness by André Taylor
The Secret to Becoming a Great Entrepreneur by Laurie Hayes
Qualities of a Successful Entrepreneur by Susan Martin


» Permanent link to André Taylor: Entrepreneur Coach

Friday, August 3, 2007

Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

public speaking coach Lisa BraithwaitePersonal coach, Lisa Braithwaite, works with individuals to uncover their challenges and build their strengths in presenting themselves confidently as speakers.

1) How common is public speaking anxiety?
Public speaking anxiety is very common, although in varying degrees. Some people are so paralyzed by their anxiety that they avoid every opportunity

to speak, to the point of hindering their own career advancement. Others are anxious every time they speak, but find that a little bit of anxiety is helpful during presentations. Even experienced performers and celebrities suffer anxiety or “stage fright” before they perform, speak or sing.

Public speaking anxiety is not the same as public speaking phobia, however. People with fear of public speaking which is severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of social phobia make up a very small part of the population, between 3% and 13%. This is important to note, because people tend to psych themselves out of getting help for their anxiety, believing that it will be too difficult to resolve, and that’s just not true for most people.

If public speaking anxiety can be learned, it can also be unlearned.

2) What are the root causes of this anxiety? Are they different for everyone?
Each individual fears one thing or another: rejection, being judged, losing one’s place, being deemed an impostor, the audience noticing one’s nervousness, making mistakes, being boring – and some people are just plain uncomfortable with being the center of attention. Some people have had experiences of embarrassment in public speaking situations; some have witnessed it in others, and this was enough to trigger anxiety. Each person has her/his own issues to overcome, but most are common to all who suffer from anxiety.

3) What mistakes do people make that add to their anxiety level before a speaking engagement?
The biggest mistake a speaker makes is to focus on her own anxiety! When a speaker keeps thinking about how nervous she is, and keeps dwelling on possible mistakes or “what ifs,” she is only increasing her anxiety. Mental exercises like visualization and re-framing, and physical relaxation exercises are critical to turning off the negative self-talk that goes on in speakers’ heads.

4) How important is rehearsing your speech, in terms of lowering your anxiety level?
Rehearsing a speech is important, but there’s a fine line between rehearsing and over-rehearsing. I rehearse a presentation several times before the final event, but I always allow a day in between my rehearsals, to allow the content and presentation structure to seep into my subconscious mind a little bit. Over-rehearsing causes a presenter to come across as robotic or mechanical, especially when the presentation is memorized word-for-word.

I recommend memorizing a strong opening and closing, so you know exactly what you’re going to say at the beginning and end and how you’re going to say it. The rest of the presentation should not be memorized or overly rehearsed, because each audience brings their own personality to the talk, and you want to be flexible enough to go with the flow.

5) What do you do if you don’t have time to prepare a speech, or if you are expected to speak off the cuff?
If you’re asked to speak at the last minute, write out some notes. Take a moment to think about your audience and what you want to say, and make some quick bullet points, no more than three so you don’t overwhelm yourself.

Take the notes with you when you speak; because you only have a couple of bullet points, you won’t be tempted to stare at the paper or note cards (or napkin!) the whole time you’re speaking and neglect to make eye contact with your audience. You may want to write out your first sentence and memorize it, so that you can start off your remarks with an air of confidence.

Take a moment to compose yourself; if you can get away, go to the restroom for some privacy. Breathe deeply and do some neck rolls and stretches to get the blood flowing. Clench and unclench your hands and feet a few times if you’re sitting at a table and your hands and feet are hidden. And ideally, you will always anticipate being asked to speak in certain situations, and won’t be caught off guard.

6) What general tips do you have to lower your anxiety before a public speaking event?
a) The best thing a speaker can do to reduce anxiety is to focus on the audience’s needs. What’s in it for them? What are they hoping to learn? How can you best serve them? When you start putting the audience’s needs ahead of your own concerns, you will automatically start feeling more comfortable.

You can do this by researching your audience in advance. How many people will be there? What’s their demographic information? How much do they know about your topic? You can also visit the space where you’ll be speaking, to get a feel for the size, layout and dynamics of the room, any equipment you’ll need, and any noises, smells or temperature issues that may affect the presentation. This adds to your overall level of preparation, which in turn reduces anxiety.

b) I also recommend incorporating interaction with the audience. Ask questions and write down their answers on a flip chart for later reference. Ask the audience members to disclose a piece of information with their neighbor that relates to your topic, then have people volunteer to share with the whole group. Break the audience into groups and give them an activity to complete in a short amount of time. Then have each group pick one person to talk about the results.

Interacting with the audience serves several purposes:
  • It takes the pressure off of you to be the sole source of information
  • It helps you learn where the audience is in their knowledge of your topic so you can customize your talk for them (and feel more prepared)
  • It allows the audience to share their own lifetime of experience and knowledge, bringing an essence of teamwork to the presentation
  • It gives you and the audience a mental break from straight lecture
  • It allows them to process what you’ve been talking about
  • It shakes things up a bit, adding discussion, movement and fun to the proceedings.

c) Finally, I recommend re-framing the way you see your audience. Visualize yourself giving a successful presentation, and start thinking of the audience as an ally, not an enemy. The audience wants you to succeed. They hope to learn something new, maybe even be entertained. They are certainly not hoping you fall on your face and forget your entire speech. They are rooting for you. Incorporate this perception of the audience into your visualization before you give your presentation.

These three things, together with careful preparation and practice, will guarantee reduced anxiety over time.

7) Is there anything good about feeling anxious before public speaking?
There are different opinions on this in the public speaking community, but my opinion is that a little anxiety is beneficial. Too much anxiety can hinder performance, so some stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises are still helpful. But there’s no need to completely eradicate nervousness.

Just as an athlete uses that adrenaline rush before a competition to run faster, jump higher or throw farther, a speaker can use the adrenaline before a presentation to provide a helpful jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

Another analogy is that of riding a roller coaster. Fear and excitement are intertwined when we ride a roller coaster. Our brain logically knows that we aren’t in danger; otherwise we would never get on the ride in the first place. We scream and we laugh, all at the same time. At the end, we experience relief and exhaustion, but our energy is high.

A little bit of anxiety propels a speaker to give her best performance. It gives a speaker a sense of excitement, an edginess, a sparkle in her eye.

Related Articles:
Reduce Your Fear of Public Speaking by Lisa Braithwaite
Getting Over Your Last Minute Fear of Public Speaking by Patricia Fripp
Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking by Steve Kaye

» Permanent link to Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Tips for Active Listening

Management Consultant Tracy Peterson TurnerDr. Tracy Peterson Turner is an expert in both written and verbal communication. She knows – and clearly communicates – the traps most professionals fall in to when attempting to communicate with those in their work environments. She provides her clients with clear, specific, and proven strategies to avoid those traps while projecting a credible and professional image.
1) How do you define active listening?

Active listening means fully engaging with the speaker. In other words, to listen actively I must suspend my desire to multi-task with my brain. Rather than “listening” to what you are saying while at the same time composing my response in my brain, I must tune in to every word you say and every nuance and movement with which you say it. This is very difficult to do; but when we are able to fully engage and listen with all our senses, the more we are able to connect with the speaker. The more we connect with the speaker and the message, the better able we are to build a relationship with them.

2) What are the benefits of active listening?
When you think about the definition of active listening I gave above, can you recall the last time you felt fully listened to? Most of the time we get a sense in our busy culture that people are “listening” to us while multi-tasking in their brains about the other stuff they need to be doing. Consequently, we don’t get a sense of being fully heard. We have to ask ourselves, do we like that feeling? If the answer is no, then that’s our motivation for learning to listen actively to others.

While most people think they are good listeners, in reality they are really just good hearers – they hear the words and make the appropriate faces, but they aren’t really listening with all their senses to what is being said.

The benefits of active listening are many:
  • By listening actively, we create an opportunity to build a relationship with another person – at a deeper level. What people like most is the sound of their own voices; to give them an opportunity to talk while we fully engage in listening is to give them a gift they rarely receive.
  • By listening actively, we have an opportunity to learn. When we listen half heartedly, we miss opportunities to learn – about subjects, people, nuances of conversation, body language, etc. By really listening – and suspending our desire and compulsion to multi-task with our brains – we just might learn something we can use later on.
  • By listening actively, we separate ourselves from the majority of the population. Active listening is a skill. Not many people have the skill, and too few use it if they do have it.

3) What ratio of listening to speaking do you suggest, and why?
You’ve heard the adage “You were given two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally.” I don’t know whether the adage is true, but the concept is a good one. We can’t listen if we are speaking – or preparing to speak in our minds. Listening more and speaking less is critical to building those relationships, learning, and cultivating the art of listening. Besides, people are often so thrilled with the opportunity to speak and be heard that they will give us details we wouldn’t get any other way (another benefit).

4) What phrases can you use to encourage people to keep talking?
Some of the phrases I use are:
  • Tell me more about… (something related to what they were just saying)
  • How did you feel when…
  • How would you like to have…
  • How would you handle a situation like…
Practice using any phrase that elicits something more than a “yes” or “no” response.

People who aren’t accustomed to being listened to will be reluctant at first. Don’t expect to have a thrilling conversation when you first put your new active listening skills to work. Most of us are used to people asking platitude type questions – questions they ask out of politeness but without sincerity in wanting a response (“How are you?” for example). It will take time to get people to understand that you really DO want to hear what they have to say, so keep practicing.

5) How can you tactfully end a conversation?
A consequence of being a good active listener is that people will keep talking. While that’s good, it also can impact your time; so you must have some ways to extricate yourself from lengthy conversations. Here are some ways to do that:

If you know the conversation might turn into a lengthy one, but you still want to ask a question or practice your active listening skills – tell the person up front that you only have a few minutes to talk. For example, “Good morning, Jane. I’ve got about 5 minutes before I have to get to a meeting. Tell me, how do you think the meeting went this morning?”
If you want to pursue the conversation at a later time, say “I’m really enjoying finding out more about XYZ. Do you have some time for us to continue this conversation at 4 today? I’ll stop by then.” The key here is that if you set a later date to continue the conversation you must show up! Otherwise the relationship you’ve built will be damaged.
Another way out is to say something along the lines of “Jane, I can tell you know a lot about this topic. I’d love to hear more, but right now I’ve got to finish that project I’ve been working on.”

Of course, adding your own flair and personality will make these exits more comfortable to you.

6) What tips do you have for improving active listening skills?
Active listening takes practice and concentration; the returns you’ll receive are well worth the investment of effort. Here are some additional strategies to help you as you develop your skills:
  • Do choose the times to practice your skills carefully. In other words, make sure you have the time for a conversation before you start one.
  • Do remove any distractions. For example, move away from your computer screen so you won’t be tempted to check your email while attempting to listen actively.
  • Do concentrate on focusing on what the person is saying and how they are saying it (tone, nuances, word choice, and body language). Using all of your senses and all of their input will help you stay connected.
  • Don’t glance at your watch or the clock. Doing so will effectively shut down the conversation because the watch-glancing indicates loss of interest.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you find your mind wandering while you are attempting to listen actively. You are in the process of retraining your brain, so expect that listening actively will be a skill acquired and improved upon over time.
Related Articles:
Communicating Professionally by Tracy Peterson-Turner
Communication Tips by Susan Fee
Developing Leadership Skills by Megan Tough

» Permanent link to Tips for Active Listening

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