Zig Ziglar had stated that ‘Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust.’ Sure all these could be true from a customer’s perspective and if indeed these five conditions persist then it is prudent to leave the prospect alone. In fact in standard prospecting parlance, such a position wouldn’t make the firm qualify as a ‘prospect’ anymore to the selling organization. Sales people move on quickly to seek greener pastures. This would be the standard practice to optimize the selling time however prior to such a renouncement, the prospecting sales person’s job has actually begun. Examining these barriers to sales has to be conducted with a little more diligence. Asking questions and willful listening are two amongst other key attributes that contribute to face-to-face sales efficacy.

What is ‘Willful Listening’? Our brains are inundated with sensory inputs (sound, visual, tactile, smell and taste) and if we were to consign our attention to all these, our brains would get overheated hence we selectively delink from many sensory stimuli. In short we attend to some stimuli and remain inattentive to many others. We hear many sounds through out the day. Ability to hear is innate for people without auditory imperfections but just hearing doesn’t help in comprehension. Attentive and focused listening or willful listening is needed. Willful listening is listening intentionally and with a purpose. Same sound from the teacher impinges upon the ears of 30 students in the primary class yet each of them at the end of the class has different comprehension and this depends on the attentiveness of each student. Whilst hearing is a ‘happening’, over which one doesn’t have control, willful listening is a conscious ‘doing’.



The Sound Environment Centre at Lund University Sweden in 2009 published a report ‘Sound, Mind and Emotion’ in which 6 psychological mechanisms are stated through which emotions are produced in the brain when it reacts to sound.

  1. Brain stem reflex: Sudden, loud or dissonant sounds could signify a potentially important and urgent event inducing its listener to be alarmed and react on an instinctive level.
  2. Evaluative conditioning: When one had met a loved one in the past, a piece of music might have played in the background. Over time, repetition of the same music could trigger happy feelings and engender the same emotions experienced whilst being with this person even though he/she is not physically present. This is a kind of association pairing of stimuli.
  3. Emotional contagion: A piece of music invokes emotion. The music may not be sad but it appears sad to the listener due to internal mimicking of relevant emotion representations in the brain.
  4. Visual imagery: When one is listening to the music it conjures up visual imagery of either ‘moving upwards’ or other sensations.
  5. Episodic memory: This is the memory of autobiographical events (places, times, emotions etc.). It is the accumulation of past experiences that has happened in time and place. Remembering one’s graduation day or the first time one experienced body balance, whilst riding the bicycle etc. Episodic memory allows one to figuratively travel back in time to remember that event.
  6. Music expectancy: This is not relevant to our construction hence let us move on.

The above denotes that sound when it impinges upon our ear and after its complex processing through outer, middle & inner ears, when it reaches the brain it does something remarkable. One doesn’t hear just the sound; it is either enriched or contaminated with other contents from memory to form perception for that moment. What is the relevance of the above psychological mechanisms in selling environment?


It is safe to assume that a sales person is always under pressure. Even if their quotas are met for a particular year, he/she is going through subliminal structuring of sales for next year. Before meeting their prospective customers, the sales mind is filled with extraneous agenda as winning each deal is important. Traffic and voice in the head is huge and the avarice to ‘close a sale’ is high hence his/her listening skills are sub-optimal.


  1. ATTENTIVE LISTENING: The ability to speak depends upon the words we are able to hear first in childhood. Impaired hearing even if it is of mild extent is detrimental to language development. Similarly first listen completely to the customer and from here one’s speech constructions and pitch can begin. Such a practice provides impetus to the latter. Genuine curiosity is a must to remain attentive.
  2. EMOTIONS BEHIND FACTS: Experienced rainmakers and sales hunters listen to the emotions behind the facts, the customer is narrating. He/she listens to and is able to detect the dissonant sounds and the modulation, the prospect is making towards his/her pain areas.
  3. EYE TO EYE CONTACT: An average English-speaking person who is engaged in friendly conversation speaks at approximately 110 to 150 words per minute but the human brain has the capacity to process language and speech of up to 350 to 500 words per minute. With high attentiveness and avoiding ‘writing it down digression’, it is possible to latch on to the central themes of prospect’s responses. An eye to eye contact at all times gives the impression to the customer that one is absolutely attentive.
  4. AWARENESS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL MECHANISMS: Whilst listening to the client’s narrative, be wary of conditions of emotional contagion, evaluative conditioning and visual imagery that forms in the seller’s mind which tends to distract one from active listening.
  5. SENSITIVE LISTENING: Listen with persistence, patience and sensitivity to nuance. As they say in Rogerian psychotherapy, listen with unconditional positive regard and faith in the client. Selling is not about meeting one’s quota; it is also about genuinely facilitating the client with a sincere solution. Take care of the relationship and selling will accrue as a collateral benefit.
  6. AVOIDING DISRACTIONS: Internal chatter, not truly attentive, formulating next point, preoccupied, scattered, anxious, angry, rebutting, work pressure interferences, defensive, interpreting, judging, delusions of grandeur, excitement to jump in to handle objections etc. are engrossments unfavourable to willful listening.
  7. PARAPHRASING & SUMMARISING: It is a cliché in modern selling parlance to even state the importance of ‘paraphrasing and summarizing what the client speaks.’ Everybody knows it and it is unequivocally the foundational reference leg in willful listening. As Carl Jung has stated, ‘A schizophrenic ceases to be a schizophrenic when he feels understood.’ Clients too love to get the assurance that they have been understood and summarizing produces magic. To borrow an analogy, ‘It bears equivalence to stepping into another’s footprint in the snow. It deepens the impression while allowing the other to choose the next step.’
  8. PROMOTES RELATIONSHIP: Willful listening eliminates authoritarian potentialities in the client and promotes an egalitarian relationship. It empowers the client who tacitly grants the seller permission to speak his/her mind.
  9. APPRECIATION: Every client, despite their concerns and pain areas, do not plunge into disparaging their position. They will speak with pride about what has worked and some good practices. In your summarising or paraphrasing bouts, pick up the positive aspects that client has stated and appreciate it for a moment and swiftly move on.
  10. DISCOUNTING: Clients are very knowledgeable particularly in the digital world due to information dissemination from various channels. At times clients may not be up to speed and a little boring. Seller is able to sight and pre-empt the next sequence from the client but has to be disciplined enough not to butt in. Discount the boredom, endure it a little longer. Your permission to speak is being built by the client himself.




Willful listening is an essential aspect in ‘the organizing principle of sales’ and a learned behaviour. Sales people  are trained to speak and make pitches with consummate ease. They know their products/services and are passionate about it but its applicability emerges only after they either listen to and understand client’s precise concerns or has remarkable insight into the clients concerns as in the case of new inventive solutions in which only the seller has the expertise.   Willful listening is giving attention to hearing. Just like we give attention whilst teaching, managing our job, family etc. hearing needs attention to become listening. Listening in essence is hearing with attitude. Willful listening is not just listening to the client’s words, tonality, pace, and modulation but also listening or more accurately call it observing clients body language, facial expressions, gestures etc. As Victor Hugo puts it, ‘When a woman is talking to you, listen to what she says with her eyes.’





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