Now Hear This

Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the November 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

You know it's important to listen, but do you take the time to let your employees and colleagues know you heard what they said? "Letting know you heard them is a way to let them know you value their viewpoint, you think they're important and that you truly are listening," says Andy Levine, president of Development Counsellors International, a -based firm specializing in economic development and tourism marketing. Levine uses the following techniques to let people know he has heard them:

  • Ask questions. Don't just nod your head; ask pertinent questions that will allow them to clarify and expand on their thoughts.
  • Confirm that you understand by repeating what you've heard. This may also help them crystallize their point.
  • Resist the temptation to make your point while the other person is making theirs. If you're busy thinking about what you're going to say, you're probably not listening.
  • Take notes. Writing down what someone says demonstrates that you're listening.
  • Follow up. When the conversation requires that you take some sort of action, do so on a timely basis and then provide feedback.

"People need to know that what they have to say is heard and appreciated," says Levine. "Listening is something you do for yourself; hearing is something you do for the other person, and it is extremely worthwhile."

Jacquelyn Lynn is a business writer in Winter Park, .

Basic Training

From the Department of Most Annoying Experiences: You're waiting at the counter of a department store or auto repair shop while the employee behind the counter chats on the phone about yesterday's baseball game with a friend. When you're not around, are your employees doing the same?

Most small-business owners Nancy Friedman talks to know their employees need customer service training, but they're not sure where to start. Friedman's St. Louis-based company, Telephone Doctor Inc., specializes in providing products and services for improving the performance of on the phone. She offers these tips:

  • Announce your intention to begin a formal training program on customer service and telephone skills, and explain why such a program is necessary.
  • Schedule training sessions, and consider providing breakfast or lunch. Training periods don't have to be long; just 10 to 15 minutes a day can be worth thousands of dollars in improved performance.
  • Rent or purchase audio and video training programs. Having the programs in your company library means they'll be available to use as refreshers or for new hires.
  • Involve employees in the training process. Get their feedback on the programs you're using.
  • Reward performance. Recognize employees who are applying their new skills with positive comments and perhaps even a small, tangible reward.
  • Make smiling on the phone a job requirement--customers can hear the smile in your voice. "Don't turn your callers over to people who are not able to serve them properly," Friedman says. "Training will provide the techniques and confidence they need to do a good job."

One for All

When the Walt Disney Co. began offering benefits to the domestic partners of its homosexual employees, it came under fire from many conservative groups. But few companies get that kind of attention for making an internal policy decision--in fact, most businesses implement domestic partner benefit programs without so much as a public ripple.

According to Ken McDonnell, a research analyst with the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, DC, domestic partner benefits are one way employers are responding to the changing demographics of their work force. The statistics show the need: In 1960, 76 percent of U.S. households were headed by a legally married couple, compared with only 55 percent in 1995. In 1960, only 21 percent of households consisted of two or more unrelated individuals, but by 1995, that number had increased to 39 percent.

Health insurance gets most of the attention in discussions of domestic partner benefits, but McDonnell says that when you begin to explore the issue, you may find that your employees really want acceptance of their relationships in terms of other benefits, such as family leave. Begin the process by looking at your benefits plan in its totality, consider the demographics of your work force, and survey employees to determine the degree of interest. Other points McDonnell says you'll want to consider include the following:

vDetermine who will be eligible. Decide whether to extend the benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual partners, or homosexual partners only. "Some companies, like IBM and Lotus, have extended their benefits only to homosexual employees' partners because heterosexual couples can opt to marry legally while homosexual couples cannot," McDonnell says. "Both companies have stated that once homosexuals have the right to legally marry, they will drop the benefits because they will no longer be needed."

vDecide on the proof required to show that a committed relationship exists. Although married couples have a state-issued marriage certificate, in most cases, domestic partners do not have any sort of legally-binding certification. You may consider such items as a joint lease or mortgage, joint bank accounts, or a signed affidavit to be proof of a committed relationship.

vResearch and explain the costs. There is a financial and tax impact for both your company and the employee when you extend insurance benefits to domestic partners. Consult with your insurance agent and tax advisor, and be sure your employees understand what the program will mean in terms of out-of-pocket costs and tax consequences.

McDonnell says that most private-sector employers offering domestic partner benefits tend to have a young, liberal, talent-driven work force that values this type of benefit for their own use or because it projects a liberal image of the company. Companies have viewed domestic partner benefits as an important tool in employee retention and maintaining a positive corporate image. McDonnell also points out that utilization of domestic partner insurance coverage has been much lower than anticipated, probably because working domestic partners tend to get health insurance through their own employers.

In the Know

Businesses continue to struggle with issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law designed to protect with disabilities against discrimination.

"Any private-sector employer that employs 15 or more people is required to comply with the ADA," says Cheryl Taylor, an attorney and publisher of The Compliance Report, a newsletter covering employment and bias issues.

And it's a good idea to be in compliance with legislation, even though you may be exempt at present. "Small companies should learn to play by the rules early so they can prevent a lawsuit from occurring later," Taylor says. "Managers should be trained on how to identify and avoid inappropriate conduct when interviewing, hiring and employing a disabled person. And employees should be aware of what constitutes appropriate workplace conduct."

Resources to help you deal with ADA compliance and people with disabilities include: your state human resources commission; the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (202-376-6200); Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (800-949-4232); and Taylor & Associates (301-931-8877 or

Keeping Your Cool

As a success indicator, how well you deal with adversity is far more important than how intelligent you are, says Paul G. Stoltz, founder and CEO of PEAK (Performance, Excellence, Achievement, Knowledge) Learning Inc., an international consulting firm in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the author of Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities (Wiley & Sons Inc., $24.95). "As an entrepreneur, you are constantly on the front line of adversity. You have to learn to thrive on the edge, and your adversity quotient is the most direct influence and predictor of your ability to do that," says Stoltz. "Unlike IQ, which is a tattoo you tend to wear your whole life and is very difficult to change, AQ [Adversity Quotient] can be significantly improved in a very short time.

To raise your AQ, Stoltz says you must first learn to realize when adversity hits so you can respond quickly. Then determine whether your typical reaction is constructive or destructive. "Once you recognize adversity and understand your response, you learn to [change] your negative responses," Stoltz says.

But is this just another version of positive mental attitude? Not at all, Stoltz insists. "We all know who are positive, upbeat and energetic, and who are destroyed in the face of adversity," he says. "I would argue that the people who have a high AQ, who consistently respond to adversity in a positive way, are going to have a positive attitude. And the people who are constantly beaten down by adversity are not."

Contact Sources

The Compliance Report, (301) 931-8877,

Development Counsellors International, (212) 725-0707, fax: (212) 725-2254

Employee Benefit Research Institute, (202)775-6342,

PEAK Learning Inc., 400 N. Skyview, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, (800) 255-5572

The Telephone Doctor Inc., (314) 291-1012


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