There’s a reason why the best salespeople talk only 10 percent of the time.

Last month’s article dealt with the art of asking questions as a way to build knowledge of customers’ wants and needs. There is a second part to that equation. Asking all the right questions will get you nowhere unless you develop careful listening skills.

Listening is more than just keeping quiet. Listening requires you to train your brain to focus on the speaker instead of on yourself or your surroundings.

It may sound easy, but listening is hard work. You may be working in an area bombarded with jobsite sounds or from people talking on a phone. There may be noise from radios, traffic, construction or office equipment and extraneous conversations. We’ve learned to tune out most of it as background noise. Our aural processing systems don’t always work to perfection, unfortunately. Distractions sometimes cause us to tune out stuff that matters.

We also succumb to impatience. The average person speaks at about 135 words to 175 words a minute, but a listener can process 400 words to 500 words a minute. People have a tendency to fill the extra time, daydreaming or anticipating what the speaker will say next. Doing this may short-circuit the communication and distort the message. We end up interpreting what we think the speaker will say.

We are born with the ability to hear, but hearing is not the same thing as listening. Hearing is to listening what holding a scalpel is to performing surgery. Hearing is a passive activity that comes naturally, while listening requires training and motivation. You really have to want to understand what the other person is saying.

Your motivation comes from wanting to be the best you can be at your job and succeed in your business. Once motivated, here are some tips to help you master the art of listening.

Maintain eye contact. Looking people in the eye shows respect, and helps maintain focus on what’s being said.

Ask questions. Asking questions forces you to concentrate on listening. Get in the habit of asking speakers to clarify or elaborate things you don’t fully understand. This not only helps you to listen, it also will help you to learn things.

Take notes. Even if you never refer to these notes, the act of writing things down on paper forces you to concentrate on what the other party is saying. It also helps lock the information in your mind. The notes don’t have to be detailed – just jot down key words, phrases and numbers. People speak much faster than anyone can write. If you try to write down every word that’s said, you will lose track of the conversation and miss some of the speaker’s main points.

Get rid of distractions.Avoid the temptation to multi-task by doing paperwork, checking e-mail, etc., while someone is talking to you. Don’t try to answer another incoming call on a different line. This really is aggravating to the other party. Leave it to the phone receptionist or voicemail to take a callback message.

Interject. From time to time during a long conversation, make brief comments such as: “I understand … I see what you’re saying.” It helps you to stay alert, and also shows the speaker that you are paying attention.

Don’t interject your own thoughts. Make sure the other party is finished talking before you venture an opinion or explanation. Some people have trouble getting to the point. Give them time to tell you what they want to say in their own way, although it’s OK to move the conversation along by asking questions.

Don’t rehearse a response. Listen to the full message. Only respond after the other person has finished talking. There may be key information not revealed until near the end.

Pause. After the other party finishes talking, pause for a few seconds before responding. The other person might be pausing just to catch a breath or formulate other remarks. Pausing also allows you a chance to soak up and retain what’s been said, as well as collect your thoughts.

Sit at the end of your chair. Being too comfortable promotes daydreaming. When speaking on the phone, try to assume the same businesslike posture you would if you were meeting the person face-to-face. This will help make you more attentive.

Tune in to unspoken messages. A famous study has shown that only 7 percent of communication gets conveyed by spoken words. Facial expressions and body language account for 55 percent, with the other 38 percent coming through in one’s tone of voice. Over the phone, you will not have access to the visual information, but you will to the 38 percent of information conveyed by tone of voice. This means that it’s not enough to listen only to what people say. It’s important to pick up on how they say it. They may be trying to tell you something, but don’t know how, or are uncomfortable saying it. For example, a person may not want to get someone in trouble by criticizing performance. Yet, tone of voice often will reveal this information as the root of a problem.

I’ve stated several times in these last two articles that it’s important to learn as much as possible about a customer’s business. You learn nothing by talking; you can learn everything by listening.

Most people adhere to the stereotype of salespeople as being glib fast-talkers. To the contrary, the best sales professionals only will talk about 10 percent of the time. They will listen to what the customer is saying the other 90 percent.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “’Tis better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”