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The Skills You Need For Outstanding Customer Support: Active Listening

Imagine you‘re on the subway. Someone listens to music while staring out of the window in deep thought. A man in a suit talks to another businessman about his brand-new, most important project. The other guy mutters “aha” and “mhm” now and then and clearly would want to be anywhere but here now. A girl tells her Mom how she has been bullied during recess. The mother is aghast, hugging her daughter while patting her on the back. While she holds her child in her arms, she gives her some ideas on how to deal with the bullies.

Your ears are simple (technically, that‘s a lie, but their main principle is). They sense sound and forward it so it can be processed by your brain. But then, if you check the situation that I have described closely, you‘ll see that there are different ways of how we process the surrounding sounds. In this article, you‘ll learn about the different types of hearing or listening and about why active listening is one of the 15 skills for outstanding customer support.

Hearing vs. Listening

Hearing and listening are two different activities. The hearing is nothing but a sense. It helps you perceive sounds. This happens automatically. You cannot turn off your ears. Sure, if you put in earplugs, you may drown out sounds, but you still do not turn off your hearing. Your ears work constantly. Whenever there‘s sound reaching them, you hear. Enter your brain which makes all the difference. If all sound would be processed alike, you would be flooded with information all the time. Therefore, the brain has some pretty useful mechanisms that work like neural earplugs. It doesn‘t inform us about every single sound that arrives, but only about important ones. For example, on a busy street, the different car sounds will become one stream of noise. As long as you stay on the footpath, the sound of the passing cars isn‘t of importance to you. It took you some time to learn that. Now, your brain automatically shuts down that noise so you can instead concentrate on your way forward.

Now, what happens if there are screeching tires, loud hooting and people screaming behind you? You‘ll instantly switch from hearing to listening. Your brain tells you that these sounds are important to you. It‘s probably only then that you recognize the cars at all. You focus your attention on the noise as you try to figure out if you have to react to the situation and, if so, how.

Actually, I was impressed that the English language only has the term “to listen” where in German, there are the words “hinhören” and “zuhören”. I still think that they describe an important difference, so here‘s what both mean.

Hinhören

As mentioned, “hinhören” would be translated into “to listen”. Imagine the radio playing while you‘re doing the dishes or writing your latest column. All of a sudden, your favorite song starts. You no longer simply hear the sound of the radio, but focus your attention on it. Or think about your days back in school. Choose the worst subject you had. Can you remember your teacher standing in front of the blackboard, with these endless monologues about the most boring subjects? You were still listening while taking notes and if somebody had asked you after class what it was about, you would at least have had some vague ideas, but most likely no own opinion on the topic. What you did was “hinhören”, but not “zuhören”.

Zuhören

The difference in “zuhören” is that you don‘t just let sound or a conversation wash over you, but you take part in the action. In our school example, this would happen in your favorite subject. Your favorite teacher is standing in front of the class. Maybe it‘s simply the topic that‘s interesting, maybe it‘s your teacher‘s personality that gets you hooked up. You are interested in what is happening, probably even have your own opinion on the topic. It‘s not only the action of listening to what‘s being said but that you react and take part in the conversation which makes the difference. Even if you don‘t reply, but only think about what you have just heard, that‘s what the German term “zuhören” describes instead of just “hinhören”.

When it comes to listening, there are not only “hinhören” versus “zuhören”, but there are also a couple of ways to differentiate between different kinds of listening. C. Otto Scharmer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives the following approach:

Downloading listening

The person only listens to what is in line with their own beliefs. They download only the part of the conversation that strengthens their own opinion.

Factual listening

The listener scans the conversation only for information that is new or differs from their own opinion.

Empathic listening

The listener moves away from their own point of view, towards that of their conversational partner. They change perspective and see the world through their conversationalist‘s eyes.

Generative listening

This way of listening combines empathic listening and the question: What can be built from the current conversation, how can the future be shaped? This is what coaching conversations try to achieve — even if the coach may give it a different name.

Prof. Dr. Christian-Rainer Weisbach pursuits a different approach. He defines the different types of listening as follows:

“I see”-listening or pseudo listening

That‘s the lowest form of listening. The listener isn‘t really interested in listening but talking. His trick: he uses small pauses that come up in every conversation to throw in an “I see” or “you could think that, but…”. Mission accomplished, he‘s now in the lead and has taken over the conversation to express his own opinions.

Absorbing listening

This is listening — and only listening. The listener withholds from their own statements and lets his counterpart do the talking. He absorbs what is being said. It’s tricky to tell if the listener actually is listening or is preoccupied. Absorbing listening isn‘t a bad thing per se. It can be very helpful if a person had a very emotional experience and needs to ‘let it all out’. If you‘re the listener, let your counterpart know that you‘re still with them. It‘s as easy as nodding your head or answering with a quick “mhm”.

Paraphrasing listening

Here, the listener also makes their own statements. Nevertheless, they don‘t express their own opinions or assumptions. They rather paraphrase what has just been said. By doing so, they make sure that they got the point of what’s already been said.

Active listening

Take absorbing and paraphrasing listening shake well and add another level on top: enter active listening.
Now, it‘s no longer just about what is being said, but also about how it‘s being said. An active listener analyzes the words of their conversational partner as well as what‘s between the lines. They notice the body language and tone. In addition to plain information that is given on the factual level, active listeners also check the emotional level. As with empathic listening, active listening tries to see the world through the conversational partner‘s eyes.

There are lots of alternative approaches to classifying different types of listening. Most are pretty similar to the ones named above. Further, most of them see active listening as the top class of listening which is also the most difficult type to master. But what do you need it for at all?

Photo von Farrel Nobel auf Unsplash
Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash

Active listening — what do I need it for?

In day-to-day life and especially in customer support, you have conversations regularly. This can become a problem if people are talking, but not on the same level if they misunderstand each other or talk at cross-purposes. By listening actively, you create a better outset for your conversations. You communicate efficiently and are responsive to your conversational partner. Active listening makes your customer support human. Your counterpart feels that they are taken seriously and aren‘t just a random number or a case that needs to be solved.

Sounds good? Then there‘s even better news for you: you don‘t have to be a natural. Certainly, there are individuals that are born with a great talent to listen to people. Nevertheless, there is a set of methods that can help everybody to become a better, active listener.

How does active listening work?

First things first: this is not going to happen quickly. You can read about how to become an active listener. That‘s the start. But it will only work if you practice. Again and again. Not only today but also tomorrow, in the following weeks and months. Learning how to listen actively is like learning a new language. It‘s nice to know the theory, the vocabulary, and grammar. But once you actually start talking, that‘s when you‘ll make huge progress. If you want to become an active listener, you should practice the following methods:

Focus on the conversation.

It‘s tempting: while you‘re listening to the conversation, you‘re checking your emails and Whatsapp, you watch people in the street or prepare your own response to the conversation. Stop. That‘s not how active listening works. Admittedly, if you need to quickly end a conversation, active listening is not the way to go. But then, that‘s not what we‘re trying to do here. You need to get involved with your counterpart. This also means giving them all of your attention.

Make sure not to be distracted.

You don‘t need your mobile or laptop while you‘re listening. If possible, choose a quiet and empty room. It can actually be pretty hard just to be listening to a conversation. Give it a try, next time you‘re in the subway. Just listen to the person next to you. Don‘t stalk them, just try to follow their conversation without focusing on other people. If that‘s too intrusive, listen to a news broadcast. You‘re not allowed to use your mobile or laptop while listening. Focus on the conversation and when your thoughts drift away, make a mental effort to bring them back to what is being said.

Do the groundwork.

Obviously, this only works in cases where you know up front that there will be a conversation. Especially if the upcoming talking will be about a complex topic, it‘s worth collecting information on what will be the agenda and goal of the conversation.

Think of an interview with a very important person. You‘ll want to make sure that you know a lot about them up front so you can pose witty questions and make a difference to all the boring standard interviews. What‘s that person‘s history, what are their special characteristics, which questions will be new and surprising for them?

In customer support, you can do the same. In fact, each customer should be that very important person. Many ticketing systems and CRM solutions give a customer history. Use it to look up information about that person. Are they a big customer, how many requests have they already sent, have there been many complaints already? The better you know your customer, the better you can target your own reaction to their needs. What‘s even more important: you can find one level on which you both can communicate. If you already know that there have been issues with the customer‘s past orders, it will no longer come as a surprise to you if that customer is upset right from the start. In addition to that, you may want to check with other departments on why so much is going wrong with that customer‘s orders.

Stay neutral.

It‘s not about you. Active listening means that you must be aware and get rid of any prejudices. Don‘t try to manipulate your counterpart. That‘s impossible, right? It is, but still, try to stay as neutral as possible. You don‘t have to share your conversational partner‘s opinions. What you need to do is to listen to them and give them a chance to even change your own opinion. That‘s your choice to make. You don‘t have to ‘win’ a conversation, but instead, need to put yourself in your counterpart’s position. This only works if you‘re open-minded.

Use your empathy.

Active listening = listening + empathy.
Alright, this is a bit simplified, but empathy is an important part of active listening.
You try to receive the factual information, the things that are being said. Furthermore, you try to read between the lines. That‘s where empathy enters the stage. If you would like to learn more about empathy, follow this link.

Recap what you hear.

This method is also called paraphrasing. Wait for your counterpart to finish their thought, or wait until they make a pause, then recap what you have understood. You don‘t have to repeat every sentence, word by word. Only choose the most important statements or facts and make sure that you are both on the same page. For example, use: “You just said that…” or “Do I get this right…”.

Recap what you don‘t hear.

Verbalization is paraphrasing‘s sister. With active listening, you watch out for what‘s being said — and for how it‘s being said. Body language and tone are strong signals for how a person feels and what their opinion on a topic is. Recap which emotions you notice: “You sound sad…”, “This seems to annoy you…”.

Pose questions.

So easy! If you‘re not sure that you see the point, simply ask your counterpart: “Am I right that…?” or “Can you explain in more detail…?”

Foto von freestocks.org auf Unsplash
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Watch your body language.

Your conversational partner communicates with words, but also with their body. You do the same. Slouchy posture and a frown tell a different story than an open countenance and choosing a sitting position so you face your counterpart. Show them that you‘re interested in the conversation and that you care. If you‘re having a chat on the phone, body language naturally isn‘t that important. Nevertheless, your voice, especially its tone, tells a story as well. Just try it: sit on a chair and make yourself as small as possible. Say one or two sentences about any subject. Now, sit up straight, square your shoulders and say the very same sentences once more. You‘ll definitely notice a difference. The same goes for a customer on the phone, who will either have to listen to your slouchy-posture voice or your i-can-do-this voice.

Let your dialog partner finish speaking.

You may have the brightest of ideas. Or you may already know how to solve your customer‘s problem. Anyway, let them finish talking. It‘s rude to interrupt. Further, you may miss the chance to listen to an important chain of thought that‘s just about to begin. This goes for all conversations, regardless of the occasion.

Know your limits.

Active listening is exhausting. You try to understand your counterpart on many levels. Be honest with yourself and your dialog partner. Tell them if a conversation is too draining for you. For example, if a chat is too emotional and about to turn into an argument, give everybody a break. Once the participants had a chance to calm down, determine that you are going to listen and, once the statement has been made, expect your partner to listen to you as well. If you would like to postpone the conversation, let them know. There‘s no use finishing a chat at all costs. Better let everybody get some rest, time to sort their thoughts, then start over again.

What are the pros and cons of active listening?

You now have a lot of methods at hand that are used in active listening. But what‘s all that in aid of? Can‘t you just listen to all the talking and give some reply in the end?
Of course, you can. Imagine a bike shop. You enter it because you want to get an e-bike. So you search for a shop clerk and tell him about your plan. He stands in front of you, motionless, listening to you and not batting an eyelash. Would you be comfortable? I guess not. Now imagine the same shop clerk, this time looking you in the eyes, nodding, guiding you all the way to the e-bikes. He asks you where you‘re planning to go if your planning big trips and how often you want to ride your bike. Once he sees your hesitation as you glance at the price tag, he checks with you to find out what your budget it. Definitely sounds better, right?
Active listening comes with a lot of effort. At the same time, it‘s a very powerful tool to make your customer support human. You make your customers feel that they are more than just a number or a case. By checking with them to see if you‘re on the same page, you avoid misunderstandings. As you take into account the emotions that you perceive, you learn more than can be found in sheer factual information. You communicate more effectively and on one level with your customer.

There are some things that active listening can‘t achieve. First of all: it‘s not a quick thing to learn. You need to practice again and again, for weeks and months. The methods that I have shown you are your vocabulary. The better you know them, the better you can actually ‘talk’ active listening.

Active listening doesn‘t fit in every conversation. For example, if you apply for a passport and the official is asking you for your details, you can, of course, try to check their emotions. Does it make sense? I‘m not so sure.

Further, be careful with reading between the lines. If your conversational partner tells you something, but their body language tells something completely different, think twice before you point that out or you may start an argument. Active listening needs a good amount of finesse. Then it can become a powerful tool for outstanding customer support.

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