Listening Skills: A Powerful Key To Successful Negotiating

Conversation techniques including listening skills, body language, and asserting ourselves to help effectively communicate with others.Unfortunately, few negotiators know how to be good listeners. And negotiators who are poor listeners miss numerous opportunities in their counterpart's words. Statistics indicate that the normal, untrained listener is likely to understand and retain only about 50 percent of a conversation. This relatively poor percentage drops to an even less impressive 25 percent retention rate 48 hours later. This means that recall of particular conversations will usually be inaccurate and incomplete.

Many communication problems in negotiations are attributable to poor listening skills. To be a good listener, you must attempt to be objective. This means you must try to understand the intentions behind your counterpart's communication--and not just what you want to under- stand. With everything your counterpart tells you, you must ask your- self: "Why did he tell me that? What does he think my reaction should be? Was he being honest?" and so on.

The best negotiators almost always turn out to be the best listeners as well. Why does the correlation exist? Invariably, the best negotiators have been observing the communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, of their counterparts. They have heard and noted how other negotiators effectively use word choice and sentence structure. They have also practiced listening for the vocal skills, such as the rate of speech, pitch, and tonal quality.

Experts on listening suggest that we all make at least one major listening mistake each day, and for negotiators, such mistakes can be costly. It seems obvious, but studies prove that the most successful salespeople are those who are able to uncover more needs than their less successful colleagues. This finding is significant, since sales- people make their living by negotiating.

Three Pitfalls of Listening

Negotiators tend to run into three pitfalls that hinder effective listening. First, many think that negotiating is primarily a job of persuasion, and to them persuasion means talking. These people see talking as an active role and listening as a passive role. They tend to forget that it is difficult to persuade other people when you don't know what motivates these people.

Second, people tend to over-prepare for what they are going to say and to use their listening time waiting for their next turn to speak. While anticipating their next change, they may miss vital information they could use later in the negotiation.

Third, we all have emotional filters or blinders that prevent us from hearing what we do not want to hear. In my early sales career, I seemed to always waste time with clients who I thought would buy printing from me but never did. Now I very seldom have that problem. What experience has shown me is that the people who used to waste my time had no intention of using my services. If I had been a better listener, I would have been able to pick up on their true feelings.

Attentive Listening Skills

Great listening does not come easily. It is hard work. There are two major types of listening skills, attentive and interactive. The following attention skills will help you better receive the true meanings your counterparts are trying to convey.

  1. Be motivated to listen. When you know that the person with the most information usually receives the better outcome in a negotiation, you have an incentive to be a better listener. It is wise to set goals for all the different kinds of information you would like to receive from your counterpart. The more you can learn, the better if you will be. The real challenge comes when you need to motivate yourself to listen to someone you do not like.

  2. If you must speak, ask questions. The goal is to get more specific and better refined information. To do so, you will have to continue questioning your counterpart. Your questioning sequence will be moving from the broad to the narrow, and eventually you will have the information to make the best decision. The second reason to continue asking questions is that it will help you uncover your counterpart's needs and wants.

  3. Be alert to nonverbal cues. Although it is critical to listen to what is being said, it is equally important to understand the attitudes and motives behind the words. Remember, a negotiator doesn't usually put his or her entire message into words. While the person's verbal message may convey honesty and conviction, his or her gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice may convey doubt.

  4. Let your counterpart tell his or her story first. Many salespeople have learned the value of this advice from the school of hard knocks. One printing salesperson told me of how he had once tried to impress a new prospect by saying his company specialized in two- and four-color printing. The prospect then told the sales- person that she would not be doing business with his printing company because her business had a need for usually one-color printing. The salesperson replied that his company obviously did one-color printing also, but the prospect had already made her decision. Had the salesperson let the prospect speak first, he would have been able to tailor his presentation to satisfy her needs and wants.

  5. Do not interrupt when your counterpart is speaking. Interrupting a speaker is not good business for two reasons. First, it is rude. Second, you may be cutting off valuable information that will help you at a later point in the negotiation. Even if your counterpart is saying something that is inaccurate; let him or her finish. If you really listen, you should gain valuable information to serve as the basis of your next question.

  6. Fight off distractions. When you are negotiating, try to create a situation in which you can think clearly and avoid interruptions. Interruptions and distractions tend to prevent negotiations from proceeding smoothly or may even cause a setback. Employees, peers, children, animals, and phones can all distract you and force your eye off the goal. If you can, create a good listening environment.

  1. Do not trust your memory. Write everything down. Any time someone tells you something in a negotiation, write it down. It is amazing how much conflicting information will come up at a later time. If you are able to correct your counterpart or refresh his or her memory with facts and figures shared with you in an earlier session, you will earn a tremendous amount of credibility and power. Writing things down may take a few minutes longer, but the results are well worth the time.

  2. Listen with a goal in mind. If you have a listening goal, you can look for words and nonverbal cues that add information you are seeking. When you hear specific bits of information, such as your counterpart's willingness to concede on the price, you can expand with more specific questions.

  3. Give your counterpart your undivided attention. It is important to look your counterpart in the eye when he or she is speaking. Your goal is to create a win/win outcome so that your counterpart will be willing to negotiate with you again. Thus, your counterpart needs to think you are a fair, honest, and a decent person. One way to help achieve this goal is to pay close attention to your counterpart. Look the person in the eyes when he or she is speak- ing. What message are the eyes sending? What message is his or her nonverbal behavior sending? Many experienced negotiators have found that with careful attention they can tell what their counterpart is really thinking and feeling. Is he or she lying or telling the truth? Is the person nervous and desperate to complete the negotiation? Careful attention and observation will help you determine your counterpart's true meaning.

  4. React to the message, not to the person. As mentioned earlier, you want your counterpart to be willing to negotiate with you again. This won't happen if you react to the person and offend his or her dignity. It is helpful to try and understand why your counterpart says the things he or she does. Elaine Donaldson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says, "People do what they think they have to do in order to get what they think they want." This is true with negotiators. When we negotiate, we are trying to exchange a relationship. Your counterpart is trying to change it according to his or her best interests. If you were in your counterpart's shoes, you may do the same thing. If you are going to react, attack the message and not your counterpart personally.

  5. Don't get angry. When you become angry, your counterpart has gained control in triggering your response. In the angry mode, you are probably not in the best frame of mind to make the best decisions. Emotions of any kind hinder the listening process. Anger especially interferes with the problem-solving process involved in negotiations. When you are angry, you tend to shut out your counterpart.

    If you are going to get angry, do it for the effect, but retain control of your emotions so you can keep control of the negotiations. Remember when Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the table in the United Nations? The effect worked well for him.

  6. Remember, it is impossible to listen and speak at the same time. If you are speaking, you are tipping your hand and not getting the information you need from your counterpart. Obviously, you will have to speak at some point so that your counterpart can help meet your needs and goals, but it is more important for you to learn your counterpart's frame of reference. With information on your counterpart, you will be in control of the negotiation. And when you are in control, you will be acting and your counterpart will be reacting; it is usually better to be the one in the driver's seat.

Interactive Listening Skills

The second type of listening skills are those used to interact with the speaker. These skills help ensure that you understand what the sender is communicating, and they acknowledge the sender's feelings. Interactive skills include clarifying, verifying, and reflecting.


Clarifying is using facilitative questions to clarify information, get additional information, and explore all sides of an issue. Examples: "Can you clarify this?" "What specific information do you want?" "When do you want the report?"


Verifying is paraphrasing the speaker's words to ensure understanding and to check meaning and interpretation with him or her. Examples: "As I understand it, your plan is..." "It sounds like you're saying..." "This is what you've decided and the reasons are..."


Reflecting is making empathetic remarks that acknowledge the speaker's feelings. If negotiators are to create win/win outcomes, they must be empathetic. Most people think of themselves as relatively empathetic. In fact, most of us easily feel empathy for others who are experiencing what we have experienced. But true empathy is a skill, not a memory. Negotiators who have developed the ability to empathize can display it even when encountering counterparts with whom they have little in common. The ability of a negotiator to empathize has been found to significantly affect the counterpart's behavior and attitudes.

To be empathetic, negotiators need to accurately perceive the content of the message. Second, they need to give attention to the emotional components and the unexpressed core meanings of the message. Finally, they need to attend to the feelings of the other, but remain detached, whereas a sympathetic individual would adopt those feelings as his or her own. Empathy involves understanding and relating to another's feelings. Examples: "I can see that you were frustrated because..." "You felt that you didn't get a fair shake." "You seem very confident that you can do a great job for..."

To truly practice reflective listening, you must make no judgments and pass along no opinions or provide any solutions. You simply acknowledge the sender's emotional content. Examples:

Sender: "How do you expect me to complete the project by next Monday?"

Reflective response: "It sounds like you are overwhelmed by your increased workload."


Sender: "Hey Mary, what's the idea of not approving my requisition for a new filing cabinet?"

Reflective response: "You sound really upset over not getting your request approved."

The goal of reflective listening is to acknowledge the emotion that your counterpart has conveyed and to reflect back the content using different words. Example:

Sender: "I can't believe you want me to do the job in less than a week."

Reflective response: "You sound stressed about the amount of time it will take to complete the job."

If your reflective response is constructed properly, the natural reaction from your counterpart will be to provide more explanation and information. Here are some key points you will find helpful in learning to be empathetic.

  1. Recognize and identify emotions. Most inexperienced negotiators are not adept at recognizing the myriad emotions. You will find it easier to identify others' emotions if you can easily identify your own. Are you frustrated, stressed, angry, happy, sad, nervous?

  2. Rephrase the content. If you restate your counterpart's comments word for word, he or she will believe you are parroting him or her. Doing so not only sounds awkward, it will make your counterpart angry. The key is to restate the content using different words.

  3. Make noncommittal responses. A good way to start reflective statements is with such phrases as "It sounds like..." "It appears that..." "It seems like..." These phrases work well because they are noncommittal. If you blatantly state, "You are angry be- cause..." most people will proceed to tell you why you are in- correct.

  4. Make educated guesses. Recently I was involved in a negotiation in which one negotiator told his counterpart that the other had submitted a ridiculous offer in an attempt to buy his company. The negotiator responded, "It almost sounds like you are insulted by my offer." The counterpart replied, "Not insulted, just shocked." Although the negotiator was not entirely accurate in his assessment of his counterpart's emotion, it was a good educated guess.

In conclusion, when you want to improve your listening skills, a good rule to remember is that God gave you two ears and one mouth--you should use them in their respective proportions. To succeed in negotiations, you must understand the needs, wants, and motivations of your counterpart. To understand those needs, you must hear. To hear, you must listen.

(Reprinted with permission from IT'S NEGOTIABLE, by P.B. Stark. Copyright 1994)

Here's a quote for you:

"You can see a lot, just by listening."
(Yogi Berra)

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 30). Listening Skills: A Powerful Key To Successful Negotiating, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: June 18, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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