The average person says something like 7000 words a day. When I learned this fact, I found myself reminded of something the Dalai Lama once said: “You can’t learn if your mouth is open.”
Do you ever feel like you’re talking too much? In our work as consultants, I’ve learned a lot about the power of listening. It may seem like our jobs are about talking—presenting, explaining, providing feedback—but I believe listening is the core skill for any consultant. Listening is the basis of our work, and learning how to listen better has made my practice that much more impactful.
In our work, we are not looking for the first and fastest answer. Active listening is the basis for thoughtful synthesis and analysis. You’re not just waiting to talk. You not only listen for the words of the clients, you digest the point they are trying to make - sometimes even through what they may not be saying.
Good Business equals Active Listening
In every step of my company's business process we’ve focused on intentional listening as one of our main competencies.
For initial conversations about scope, we’ve learned to not listen to the problem, but listen to the person with the problem. Of course you must understand the job to be done. You must also understand a bit about the person in front of you, and ask yourself, “What is the human need that drives the professional need?”
Good listening at this stage is often what can take you “beyond the RFP.” It could be that this project is part of a larger business push, revealing valuable contextual information. Many times we’ve been able to hear that our partner might have needs “beyond the RFP” and have built expanded scopes as a result.
During interviews and discovery, I ask open-ending, non-leading questions. Our own egos trick us into trying to guide the clients towards something easy we know will work. But rarely is the easiest solution the best one. By listening carefully to a problem, one often uncovers unexpected root causes or separate but entangled problems.
Listening, of course, is the basis of all strategic decision-making and leads ultimately to deeper partnerships and understanding a situation, allowing for detailed analysis. That analysis allows for thoughtful advice, enabling trusted partnerships and better outcomes.
One consistent blocker in building better relationships through listening is humans have a bad habit of becoming complacent and entitled in long-term relationships.
To avoid this with clients, I’ve focused on the difference between hearing and listening. It’s human nature to hear, like we hear street noise or a baby crying. It’s also human nature to immediately turn it into background noise we subconsciously ignore.
The Price of Good Listening
Early in a relationship, there will be false alarms and overreactions. It’s only natural. Resist the temptation to become desensitized and go on cruise control. Continue listening with intention. People appreciate feeling heard and know when they are not being listened to. Just hearing instead of really listening will hurt effectiveness and relationships.
Poor listening can cost organizations a lot, so I’m equally focused on how we listen to each other within our walls. Ineffective listening is a huge cost and source of risk. SIS International Research (NY) reports 70% of small to mid-size businesses lose money due to ineffective listening and communication. A 100-employee business will burn $500k a year just clarifying miscommunications.
There’s a lot going on in the world, including a shortage of intimate, nuanced communication. People want to feel listened to and understood now more than ever. I try to be really present even on video, make a bit of camera-eye contact and give good expressive feedback (at least there’s not a mask!). Listening is the first tool in rebuilding human relationships.
And we all know those people who make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world when you’re talking….and they are listening to you with intent. Lightning bolts could be dropping around you, and those people who have that gift keep their eyes on the prize, never deviating from you because they understand the power of listening and relationship.
Intentionally listening makes us better. For both creative and business-minded professionals in marketing, it also makes us significantly better at our jobs. The “not now zone” is when I’m really able to tune into what a client is saying, see what they really want, and then help them connect that to the business outcome—without distractions. All made possible with practice—which I hope can be as useful for you, too.
So, go out, build that muscle, and let me know how it goes. I’ll be waiting and listening.