Back To Basics: Listening Skills On The Phone

by Larry M. Guzzardo

Dentistry is part art, part science, but all about people. In dental school, the people part of the equation was overlooked, and it takes a number of years in practice to realize its importance. Dentistry is a service business, and communication is paramount to success.

Communication, by definition, is “the exchange of ideas, messages, or information.” It is not tangible. In fact, communication is one of the most dynamic elements of the human condition. Effective communication begins with listening and opens the door to understanding.

As you’ve heard many times before, we come into this world with two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that same proportion. In conversation, this simply means that you should listen twice as much as you talk if you want to get a reputation for being an enjoyable person with whom to converse.

The art of a good telephone conversation centers very much on your ability to ask questions and to listen attentively to the answers. You can lace the conversation with your insights, ideas, and opinions, but you perfect the art and skill of conversation by perfecting the art and skill of asking good, well-worded questions that direct the conversation and give other people an opportunity to express themselves.

Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions encourage your patients to expand on thoughts and comments. And one question will lead to another. You can ask open-ended questions almost endlessly, drawing out of the caller everything that he or she has to say.

In order to be an excellent conversationalist, you must resist the urge to dominate the discussion. The very best conversationalists seem to be low-key, easy-going, cheerful, and genuinely interested in the other person. They seem to be quite content to listen when other people are talking and they make their own contributions short and to the point.

In fact, good conversation has an easy ebb and flow, like the tide coming in and going out. Whether it is between two people or among several, the conversation should shift back and forth, with each person getting an opportunity to talk. Conversation in this sense is like a ball that is tossed from person to person, with no one holding on to it for very long.

Listening is the most important of all skills for successful conversation. Many people are very poor listeners. Since everyone enjoys talking, it takes a real effort to practice the fundamentals of excellent listening and to make them a habit.

There are the four major rules for active listening in a conversation. They are powerful, practical and proven techniques to increase your influence with other people dramatically. The first key to effective listening is for you to listen attentively, without interruptions.

When you pay close attention to another person, you convey to that person that you very much value what he or she has to say. Individuals you are speaking to find this very flattering, and they will respond warmly to your attentiveness.

The major reason why most people are poor listeners is that they are busy preparing a reply while the other person is still speaking. In fact, they are not even listening closely to what the other person is saying. We act very much like boxers waiting for the other person to let their guard down so they can jump in with a quick verbal punch and take over the conversation.

In addition to listening without interrupting, you should give the speaker a few verbal cues every now and then to indicate you are listening. Be active rather than passive. Indicate that you are totally engaged in the conversation. Say things like; “Oh”; “Hmm”; or “I see”. The second key to effective listening is to pause before replying. A short pause, of three to five seconds, is a very classy thing to do in a conversation. When you pause, you accomplish three goals simultaneously.

First, you avoid running the risk of interrupting if the other person is just catching his or her breath before continuing. Second, you show the other person that you are giving careful consideration to his or her words by not jumping in with your own comments at the earliest opportunity. The third benefit of pausing is that you will actually hear the other person better. His or her words will soak into a deeper level of your mind and you will understand what he or she is saying with greater clarity. By pausing, you mark yourself as a brilliant conversationalist.

The third key to effective listening is to question for clarification. Never assume that you understand what the person is saying or trying to say. Instead, ask, “Let me see if I understand you correctly. Can you explain that again?” This is the most powerful question I’ve ever learned for controlling a conversation. It is almost impossible not to answer. When you ask, “Can you explain that again?” the other person cannot stop himself or herself from answering more extensively. You can then follow up with other open-ended questions and keep the conversations rolling along. The fourth key to effective listening is to paraphrase the speaker’s words in your own words. Start like this; “Let me see if I’ve got this right. What you’re saying is . . .”

By paraphrasing the speaker’s words, you demonstrate in no uncertain terms that you are genuinely paying attention and making every effort to understand his or her thoughts or feelings. And the great thing is, when you practice effective listening, other people will begin to find you fascinating. They will want to be around you. They will feel relaxed and happy when they are in contact with you.

The reason why listening is such a powerful tool in developing the art and skill of conversation, especially on the telephone, is because listening builds trust. The more you listen to another person, the more he or she trusts you and believes in you.

Listening also builds self-esteem. When you listen attentively to another person, his or her self-esteem will naturally increase. Finally, listening builds self-discipline in the listener. Because your mind can process words at 500-600 words per minute, and we can only talk at about 150 words per minute, it takes a real effort to keep your attention focused on another person’s words.

If you do not practice self-discipline in conversation, your mind will wander in a hundred different directions. The more you work at paying close attention to what the other person is saying, the more self-disciplined you will become. In other words, by learning to listen well, you actually develop your own character, your own personality, and become more likeable.

These are my best pointers to help you listen better on the telephone.

Stay focused. Prevent yourself from being distracted by other staff members or external noises and concentrate on what your caller is saying.

Detect emotions. Listen to the emotion in your caller’s voice. Does it match or endorse the words they are using?

Ask questions. Ask questions to gain more information on points you need to clarify.

Don’t interrupt. You listen more effectively when you’re not talking, so refrain from interrupting your caller. Let them finish what they are saying; interruptions may break their train of thought.

Don’t pre-empt. Avoid pre-empting what your caller is going to say, chances are you will be wrong and miss some of the content of their conversation.

Paraphrase key facts. Paraphrase and reflect back to check you have heard the key facts and content of the caller’s conversation correctly. It also lets the caller know you have understood them. Statements such as “What I’m hearing is…” and “Sounds like you are saying…” are great ways to reflect back and paraphrase.

Pen and paper handy. Have a pen and paper on hand and get into the habit of making short quick references to any questions you want to ask or points you wish to raise or comment on. When your caller has finished speaking refer back to your notes and take action. If you are thinking of answers and responses while the caller is speaking, you are not listening.

Say it again. If you are having difficulty listening, make the necessary adjustments. You might say, “I’m afraid I missed that last point. Please repeat that for me.”

Watch the stereotypes. Avoid stereotyping individuals by making assumptions about how you expect them to act and what you expect them to say. This will bias your listening.

Be aware of the barriers to listening
• We think we’re right and the other person is wrong
• We feel we have to provide help right away
• We prefer to talk rather than listen
• We are waiting for gaps or pauses to jump in with our response

About the Author

Larry M. Guzzardo who has co-authored two books, “Powerful Practice” and “Getting Things Done” conducts in-office practice management consultations exclusively for dentists to enhance trust, create organization, increase profits, and to develop patient relationships that last. Larry has presented numerous workshops including, “Winning Patient Acceptance,” “Business Communication Systems,” and “The Leadership Challenge.”

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