When to Talk and When to Listen – Business Communication Skills for Customer Service and Sales

Today’s post burns as I write it, because my team (under my leadership) failed to know when to talk versus listen during a meeting with a VIP client.

In this case, we knew the client well and their specific need was right in our sweet spot, and we had genuine value and the capability of delivering it. Unfortunately for both of us, the people with the project did not feel listened to or even heard, and so the door closed and we were the ones who closed it.


How do you know when to talk and when to listen? Hindsight is 20/25, meaning in retrospect you can be fairly clear about what you should have done. It’s an easy answer with other factors.

The easy answer is to listen more and listen right away! 


Listening mistakes1) Not listening enough to truly understand, and 2) going too far in the wrong conversation before realizing you’re off track.

We made both of these mistakes, first not listening to our client well at all, and secondly not recognizing it until way too late in the meeting.

Talking mistakes: 3) Talking instead of listening, and 4) failing to use your words to confirm your listening. We made both of these mistakes too, talking about ourselves instead of them, and failing to repeat back what they were saying to us.

Part of our mistake tied to another very common scenario: We went into the meeting with an incorrect understanding of what our VIP client thought the meeting was about, and that led us to hear everything they said in the wrong context.

Interpretation mistakes: 5) Incorrectly identifying the purpose of a meeting from the other party’s perspective, and 6) hearing everything the other party says in the light of your incorrect assumptions. 

Imagine you were meeting with an investor because you recently launched a small tax accounting firm. When they say, “I’m not sure what to do with the windfall of last year,” you may hear that in the light of your expectation that they are looking for a company to invest in. But what if they were in the meeting with you because they needed tax services? In that case, “I’m not sure what to do with the windfall of last year,” would mean something completely different.

Course-correction mistakes: 7) Ignoring the signs of misalignment, 8) failing to course-correct, 9) fear about deviating from your team’s plan, and 10) trying to cover up your mistake at the last minute if you realize you’ve screwed it up.

With at least ten ways to make a big mistake, how do you manage a meeting to ensure you’re talking and listening the way you should?


Step 1: Start every meeting by clarifying purpose.

We use story structure to do that: Clarifying a basic beginning problem, a middle with an action, an end with a better outcome, and a main character who happens to be the people we’re talking to.

“Dan and Judy, I want to make sure we’re all in the same meeting. My understanding is that you (MC) had such a good year last year that you need to identify some new potential companies to invest in (Beginning), and we’re going to take a look at our new tax accounting firm’s vision, mission, P&Ls, and Projections (Middle), so that you are able to make a decision (Ending) about whether to consider us for your expanded portfolio. Is that your understanding?”

Right or wrong, they’ll tell you, and it’s better to know up front.

Step 2: Check as you go.

Checking is the end of step one, and it’s also the repetitive process of making sure you remain on course. As the perspectives shifts from the forest to the trees, each movement and sub-movement requires the same checkpoint.

Use the exact words the other party is using. If they say, “We want an Excel spreadsheet with numbers from the last five years on it,” don’t respond with, “So you want a clear financial picture?” Say, “So you want an excel spreadsheet with last years’ numbers on it.” You can add to that, but make sure you include the words they used.

Our VIP client asked by name for a specific service, and we never once used those exact words. They didn’t feel heard or understood.

Shame on us.

Step 3: Listen to your gut, spot red flags, and adjust the “story of the meeting” accordingly.

By “gut” I mean emotional intelligence, which reads abstract and subtle body language. Red flags are feelings automatically triggered by observing body language. Listen to the signals and respond.

Meetings can be adjusted with story structure, and I’m not suggesting that you bend your truth like a pretzel. I mean that the “story of the meeting” may change as you understand more.

I once met a prospect to talk about a speech. I would have loved to be their speaker, but I got a gut-feel reactions that they needed something else. So I worked a little harder at defining the problem (a beginning), and the outcome they wanted (an ending), and I served them better by exploring options (middles) to ensure that what they bought truly matched their goals.

We are all emotionally intelligent. Listen to your feelings, and try to figure out what’s causing them.


Sales, customer-service, and leadership all benefit from knowing when to talk and when to listen.

Sometimes a tough lesson helps you re-learn what you already know about business communication skills. I am quite confident how I’ll lead my next sales or customer service meeting – by clarifying the purpose up front, by checking as I go, and by listening to my gut for the signals to adjust the group story. That way I’ll know when to talk and when to listen so that any person, prospect, or client feels like the VIP I know them to be.

Contact SagePresence for presenting skills and powerful business communication solutions.


  1. Mary Fischer on May 30, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    1. Good reminders for all of us who work with clients

    2. Why am I only getting this via e-mail? I’d rather see it on LinkedIn. All I get on LinkedIn are Seth Godin updates in which I have no interest at all.

    • Pete Machalek on May 31, 2013 at 11:08 am

      Hi, Mary!

      Those Seth Godin updates are coming from my LI setup. I would think that if you’re getting those, you should be getting SagePresence updates from my setup as well. But you’re not? I’ll have to look into it.

  2. Dean Hyers on May 30, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Well, I’ll ask Pete about that. I post on Linkedin to certain groups, and I think I may have forgotten to post it to the Sage Group. Are you a member of that?

  3. Lauri Flaquer on May 31, 2013 at 10:31 am

    You make awesome points here. I think we’ve all been in the very same situation and I like the advice that you offer for preventing it.

    Now, here is my burning question… How can we make amends to the client and clear the slate? Any ideas there?

    • Dean Hyers on May 31, 2013 at 10:50 am

      That’s a very good question. Some part of amends is making sure that you stay in it for THEM and that includes letting the opportunity go.

      It’s a tough balance to strike when your post mordem leads you to, “We really are a good fit for the project, and I wish I had a time machine so I could redo that meeting.” That can lead you to forget who the main character is and start fighting for yourself. So my first step is to get behind letting them go and send them a message of SUPPORT or excitement for them – and mean it.

      Then I look for ways to openly acknowledge and own my misstep. For example, I just blogged about it and put my mistakes transparently out to the world, to say that a) I make mistakes, and b) I own them. There are lessons to learn and I’m learning.

      From there, I just continue to put my care for my prospects and customers up front and share useful information, blogs, connections and good will their way, and if I get a chance to communicate again, I’ll follow the advice in this blog.

      A misstep is nothing but a new not-so-happy beginning. The happy ending I want is that we’ve gotten past the mistake. The middle will be the ongoing action of supporting them and keeping communication lines open.

  4. Dave Newell on May 31, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Thanks Dean for these helpful reminders! I have encountered several meetings where I either talked to much and missed the mark, or haven’t been listened to in the way I needed it. It is imperative that we have clarity around context, otherwise, as you say, we are communicating about two different things and neither of us is satisfied.
    This is a great reminder to listen, clarify, and use story structure to get to the root of the not-so-happy beginning. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Dean Hyers on May 31, 2013 at 10:52 am

      My pleasure, Dave. If nothing else, I’ve always been useful by being transparent. So many people are committed to hiding their mistakes. I’d rather just put them out there so my learning can be “our” learning.

      I appreciate your sharing that this has happened to you as well!

  5. Ellen Zebrun on May 31, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    That’s a painful lesson, Dean, and one that you will not have to learn twice. I’ve made the same mistake by assuming I knew the issues important to and challenges faced by potential clients – only to realize that I had it all wrong.
    It is vital that we understand the situation completely so that the best and most effective solution can be developed. If not, we may be fixing a symptom instead of the itself. The only way to do this is by asking questions, repeating back what was said to make sure that the real concerns are made clear, and continuing to check in throughout the conversation so that everyone remains headed in the same direction.
    A long time ago, I learned something of great value from Marlene Wilson, a pioneering leader in volunteer management: “If you learn from your mistakes, you have not failed”. Seems to me you haven’t failed, Dean.

    • Dean Hyers on June 4, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      Why thank you, Ellen! I suspect that’s correct. Above all, the part about repeating back, as that is the only sure way to confirm your understanding. As much as I am a fan of body language cues, they are just cues. It would very possible for two people to nod and smile in affirmation, yet still be misaligned about what they’re smiling and nodding about!

  6. Marian Thier on June 4, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Very good post. Listening is a habit formed in our brain,body, and emotions, so lots is going on during the complex listening process. It’s helpful when people understand their listening habits, as well as those of their clients, so they can tailor the listening appropriately. I say over and over that the Golden Rule of Listening is “Listen to others as they want to be heard.” Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Dean Hyers on June 4, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      My pleasure, Marian.

      I suppose if the other person is not listened to as they want to be heard, then even if they are indeed heard they may not know.

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