Listening Biases Restrict Sales Success

How to Listen to be successfulHave you ever realized that people don’t always hear each other accurately? The problem is not that we don’t hear their words accurately; the problem is in the interpretation. Our brain gets in the way.

During the listening process, our brains arbitrarily filter out, or reconfigure incoming sound vibrations, turn what’s left into electrochemical signals, then dispatch them to existing circuits for translation where further deletions occur. This process ensures whatever was said matches something our brains are more familiar with – not necessarily what the speaker intended, and potentially biased.

Given that all filtering is electrochemical, and the signals (once words) are sent via neurotransmitters, the listening process is unconscious, physiological, mechanical and meaningless. By the time our brain translates incoming content into meaning, we have absolutely no idea if what we think we’ve heard is accurate.

The net-net is: we might ‘hear’ specific words accurately but our brain doesn’t interpret them as per the intent of the Speaker. With this in mind, I define listening thus:

Listening is an automatic, electrochemical, biological, mechanical, and physiological process during which spoken words, as meaningless puffs of air, eventually get translated into meaning by our existing neural circuitry, leaving us to understand some unknown fraction of what’s been said – and even this is biased by our existing knowledge.

Obviously, what we think was said is not necessarily accurate – and we don’t know the difference. So if I say ABC and your brain tells you I’ve said ABL, you not only have no way of knowing that you’ve not understood my intended message, but you’re thoroughly convinced you heard what I ‘said’. Obviously, this interpretation process puts relationships and communication at risk.

This is especially annoying in sales. When sellers pose questions to prospects to know what, how, when, or if to make a pitch, neither the seller nor prospect can be assured they’ve accurately heard the other.


Here’s a great example of how I lost a business partner due to the way his brain ‘heard’ me. While at a meeting with co-directors of a company to discuss possible partnering, there was some confusion on one of the minor topics:

John: No, SDM, you said X.
SDM: Actually I said Y and that’s quite a bit different.
John: You did NOT SAY Y. I heard you say X!!!
Margaret: I was sitting here, John. She actually did say Y. She said it clearly.
John: You’re BOTH crazy! I KNOW WHAT I HEARD! and he stomped out of the room. [End of partnership.]

Given we naturally respond according to what we think we heard rather than what’s meant, how, then, do we accurately hear what others mean to convey? Maintain relationships? Respond appropriately? I found the topic so interesting that I wrote a book on the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, the different ways our brains filter what’s been said (triggers, assumptionsbiases, etc.), and how to supersede our brain to hear accurately.

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But there are ways we can alleviate the problem.


When we enter conversations with a preset agenda, we’re unconsciously telling our brain to ignore whatever doesn’t fit. So when sellers listen only for ‘need’ they miss important clues that might exclude or enlist our Communication Partner as a prospect. A coaching client of mine had this conversation:

Seller: Hi. I’m Paul, from XXX. This is a sales call. I’m selling insurance. Is this a good time to speak?
Buyer: No. it’s a horrible time. It’s end of year and I’m swamped. Call back next week and I’ll have time.

And the prospect hung up on him. Because the Seller was initially respectful of the prospect’s time, they were willing to speak but lost interest when the Seller tried to pitch. As I was training the Seller on Buying Facilitation® that advocates facilitating decision making before pitching, I was quite surprised:

SDM: What happened? He told you he’d speak next week. Why did you go right into trying to sell something? You know to first facilitate the Buy Side before attempting to sell anything. And why did you speak so quickly?

Paul: He had enough time to answer the phone, so I figured I’d try to snag him into being interested. I spoke fast cuz I was trying to respect his time.

Obviously not a way to sell anything. Here is another example. Halfway into a sales call in which my client was facilitating a prospect through his 13 step Buying Decision Journey, and just as the prospect was beginning to recognize needs and was beginning to trust him, he blew it by making a pitch at the wrong time.

Prospect: Well, we don’t have a CRM system that operates as efficiently as we would like, but our tech guys are scheduled 3 years out and our outsourcing group’s not available for another year. So we’ve created some workarounds for now.

Seller: I’d love to stop by and show you some of the features of our new CRM technology. I’m sure you’ll find it very efficient.
And that was the end of the conversation. By hearing his prospect’s intent he might have said this and become part of their Buying Decision Team:

Wow. Sounds like a difficult situation. We’ve got a pretty efficient technology that might work for you, but obviously now isn’t the time. How would you like to stay in touch so we can speak when it’s closer to the time? Or maybe take a look at adding some resource that might alleviate your current situation a bit while we wait?
By hearing and respecting the prospect’s status quo the seller might have opened up a possibility where none existed before.

Unfortunately, in both instances, the sellers only listened for what they wanted to hear, and misinterpreted what was meant to meet their own agenda at the cost of facilitating a real prospect through to a buying decision. But there are ways to increase our ability to hear prospects.


We restrict possibilities when we enter calls with an agenda. We:

  • Misdefine what we hear so messages mean what we want them to mean;
  • Never achieve a true collaboration;
  • Speak and act as if something is ‘true’ when it isn’t and don’t recognize other choices or possibilities;
  • Limit our reactions and never achieve the full potential.

Here is a short list of ways to alleviate this problem (and take a look at What? for more situations and ideas):

  1. Enter each call as a mystery. Who is this person you’re calling? What’s preventing her from achieving excellence?
  2. Enter each call with a willingness to serve.
  3. Don’t respond immediately after someone has spoken. Wait a few seconds to take in the full dialogue and its meaning.
  4. Don’t go into a pitch, or make an assumption that a person has a need until they have determined they do – and that won’t be until much later in the conversation.
  5. Don’t enter a call with your own agenda. That leaves out the other person.

Prospects are those who will buy, not those who should buy. Enter each call to form a collaboration in which together you can hear each other and become creative. Stop trying to qualify in terms of what you sell. You’re missing opportunities and limiting what’s possible.


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including her new book HOW? Generating new neural circuits for learning, behavior change and decision makingthe NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. She can be reached at

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