Listening Skills for Sales — Why Active Listening Doesn’t Work

We have all heard how important it is to listen to someone when they are speaking. At a young age, you were likely taught that it is polite to listen to someone when they are talking and certainly impolite to interrupt someone. As you grew up, you will have also learned the value of listening as an effective engagement tool, both in business and social events. There are several books dedicated to this topic and the benefits of mastering this skill. However, a lot (not all) of the text out there fail to address a massive gap. For entrepreneurs, sales people, leaders and, frankly, any working professional this gap is detrimental to your ability to influence and persuade someone to take action. Without closing this gap, you will find it almost impossible to motivate someone.

Let me explain. You may have come across a research stating that 55% of what you communicate is through your body language, 38% is through your tone of voice and 7% is through the words you use. This means that at best, you are ‘listening’ to only 45% of what someone is saying. If you just use your ears, you will miss 55% of what someone is telling you!

Instead of learning how to actively listen, we must instead learn how to ‘deeply understand’. This involves more than just using your ears (you may have heard the old saying about us having 2 ears and 1 mouth). It involves also using your eyes and heart. In order to fully understand someone, you need to connect with them on a much deeper level. The best way to connect with someone is to become emotionally connected with that person; hence the importance of the heart.

Of the 3, body language is the most misunderstood. It is both natural and confusing. Subconsciously, or intuitively, we can pick up a body language cue, but we often confuse ourselves because our conscious mind takes over and tries to analyse what is going on. This often leads to conflicting conclusions.

In this three part series, we will explore how to:

  1. Give yourself the space and time to observe someone’s body language
  2. How to clarify any body language that you are unsure of
  3. Understand the meanings of different body language cues
  4. How to use your own body language to better connect with someone
  5. How to best record what you learn for use in future sales/engagement stages

Stop and Observe

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains the emotional yearning we all have to feel understood. I explain why this is so crucial for sales in a previous article. Dale explains a critical ingredient to both understanding someone and making them feel understood: listen and observe. I often have clients ask me how to best gather more information in a sales meeting. Most believe that asking smart questions is the key. This is only one part of the process. What surprises me is that people mistakenly ask smart questions but fail to fully commit to observing and listening to the other person’s response. Too often our mind drifts; Microsoft claims the average attention span is only 8 seconds. In a sales situation, we hear a magic word, or phrase, and immediately our thoughts race into ‘solution mode’ or ‘sales mode’. Our brain works overtime on how we are going to eloquently respond and convince this person to buy.

This is dangerous. The moment we drift and focus on what we are going to say, we risk missing out on key information that the buyer is communicating. An HBR article states that by doing this, you could be missing out on half of what the buyer has communicated!

In order to truly connect with someone, you need to stop, remain calm and still, and fully observe that person as they are speaking. Of course, you can observe someone while you speak, and often you will need to, but there is no doubt that you will observe more deeply if you are not talking. So, the trick is to not just ask smart questions that give you valuable intel, you need to ask powerful questions that will change someone’s emotional state. Such change can come from a variety of thought processes, but the most powerful that I have found is a question that tests a person’s beliefs, knowledge, theories or makes them think “That is a good question”. Asking such questions will do several things:

  • Tells the buyer that you are asking thoughtful questions with purpose, rather than just asking standard questions that they hear often or are clearly part of a sales agenda
  • Demonstrate you are trustworthy and competent to work with (feelings of trust)
  • Show the buyer that you care enough to understand them (feeling of being understood)
  • Induce the buyer to speak at length about something that is important to them(everyone loves to talk more about themselves)
  • Gives you the time to fully observe their tone of voice, body language and what they are not saying.

So, the first step to ‘deep understanding’ is to ask great questions. This will give you time to fully observe the buyer, read between the lines and understand what they are truly feeling. Try to cut out any mental noise and planning for how you are going to respond. Instead, focus on ‘listening’ with your ears, eyes and heart. By doing this, you are far more likely to earn the buyer’s trust and prove you are truly interested in them and their feelings.

Talk about those Feelings

Body language and tone of voice are an extension of your subconscious. They are the conduits for your emotional expression. That means in order to address those cues you need to discuss emotions, not logic. Remember, people make decisions based on their emotions and justify their decisions using logic.

One of the biggest things that business owners and salespeople shy away from is to talk about emotions. We often observe body language cues that are confusing. Rather than address them, we feel more comfortable in guessing and theorising their true meaning.

In a conversion we may observe that someone is either hesitant, or is not sure if they trust you, or is even bored, yet rather than bring this up we shy away from it; as if ignorance is bliss. Dr Goulston talks about this a lot in his book Just Listen. If the major block for someone is something that they are feeling, address it! Without addressing it, you don’t have much hope of winning the sale. Also, these feelings can often be misguided, and buyers therefore form incorrect assumptions. By openly addressing emotions, you have the chance to:

a) Correct their incorrect assumption

b) Come across as genuine.

Here are a couple of examples that my clients have used to address the ‘elephant’ emotion in the room. Note the emotional cues that I have underlined.


Seller: Stephen, I have been discussing the value we can bring you by reducing the time you spend on inventory management, but I am sensing that this isn’t important to you?

Buyer: You’re right. Reducing time isn’t a priority. We recently spent a lot of money and effort implementing our current system to do just that. I am happy with the results and not interested in reducing more time.

Note: aside from the belief that any more time efficiency will be too incremental, what Stephen is also saying is he can’t go back to his boss and propose another solution so soon after spending money on the current one. That would make him look foolish, and who wants to look foolish in front of their boss! Stephen’s boss could even accuse him of selecting the wrong solution in the first place. Yikes!

Seller: I certainly understand. I too wouldn’t feel comfortable proposing another solution so soon after implementing one. My research into your company has shown that in order to achieve your company objectives, your inventory process will need to achieve 3 things…….which one will have the biggest impact to those objectives?


Seller: What you can see is that we can help you market your products to the right customers and reduce your cost of sales by targeting more loyal customers with higher LTV.

Buyer: I see. You might be right.

Seller: Our real-time analysis tools can also provide you with insights that will help you spot a campaign that is not working well, understand why and then quickly make the right decision. The result is you won’t lose money spotting bad campaigns after it is too late.

Buyer: You’re right, that does seem interesting.

Seller: Sandra, may I pause a moment? Normally when I discuss such benefits with your peers they are enthusiastic about the potential. However, I get the sense that this isn’t the case for you. Am I correct?

Buyer: No, these things are important. Any marketing leader will want to optimise marketing campaigns and target the right customers.

Seller: I see. Well that is good to hear. I do however sense some scepticism?

Note: upon guidance from our workshops, this client learned to analyse body language and tone to theorise that Sandra was likely sceptical.

Buyer: There are a lot of companies that claim to do what you are describing.

Seller: Very true. It is a personal problem as some of those companies don’t always deliver on their promises. Tell me, what experiences have you had with these other companies?

Buyer: We worked with one company that didn’t deliver. In fact, after 4 months we had to cancel our agreement.

Seller: I see. That is not a good experience. What were the implications of this experience?

Buyer: Well, we were set back by 4 months and this made our targets much harder to achieve. Plus we lost £20,000 and 5,000 hours of my team’s time.

Seller: I am sorry to hear you had such an unfortunate experience. This may be a personalquestion, but it is important to ask; how did that make you feel?

Buyer: What do you mean?

Seller: Going through that experience, how did that make you feel?

Note: at this stage you are asking a question that will be uncomfortable for your buyer; especially a successful and senior buyer such as Sandra. When doing so, it is critical to ask such a question with a genuine feeling of wanting to support the buyer and empathising with them. You want to avoid coming across as interrogatory or emotionless. The next articles will explain how to use your own body language in an effective way.

Buyer: Like I had been tricked. I don’t like making bad decisions and I certainly don’t like missing targets.

Seller: As a salesperson I too don’t like to miss my targets. What if we could reverse the effects from this company and help you solve this set-back, plus ensure that you have made a great decision?

Buyer: How do you propose doing that?

Notice how in the first example the overriding emotion was fear of losing face with the boss and desire to avoid that, whilst the second example was fear of being tricked again and scepticism due to previous experiences (it could be said that ultimately Sandra would also want to avoid explaining her bad decision to her boss and the desire to avoid this). A typical sales approach would have likely missed such important emotional undertones and concluded that the buyer doesn’t yet understand the value. The seller would then seek to describe the benefits to the buyer’s business needs. We can see this is not the case and their needs are much deeper than that.

In my next 2 articles we will discuss techniques for how to better decipher body language expressions, how to be mindful of your body language to make a better connection, and how you can give yourself the best chance to record and utilise what you observe.

For now, remember don’t just listen with your ears (words and tone), listen with your eyes (body language) and with your heart (connect with the buyer). People can feel when someone is being genuine, or not. These feelings are often based on instinct and judged within seconds. That is their heart and intuition guiding them, so make sure that you are resonating with them by making your purpose and agenda genuine. Conduct your meetings and calls with their interests in mind and focus on connecting to truly understand the person you are speaking to, not to make them understand you so that you can make a sale.




Persuasion and sales expert using cognitive neuroscience & psychology and sales best practices.

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Moeed Amin

Moeed Amin

Persuasion and sales expert using cognitive neuroscience & psychology and sales best practices.

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