Monday, January 4, 2010

How to Really Listen

If you want to excel as a consultant or designer, you need to learn how to really listen to the client. It's not as easy as it seems. Clients report that professional service providers, smart as they are, often don't know how to listen well. In fact, being smart can be a barrier to listening.

Being a good listener is not something you merely learn. It's a behavior, a habit, something we usually do unconsciously (which is one reason we struggle with it). So no list of tips such as what follows is going to transform anyone's listening skills. But the strategies below can be helpful if you're diligent in trying to put them into practice:

Genuinely care what the client has to say. Effective listening is as much a disposition as a skill. If you want to be a better listener primarily because of the benefits you'll reap, you're not likely to see significant improvement. The best listeners are those who really want to hear what the other person has to say.

Listen for identification, not just for information. Develop your skill for empathetic listening, where you seek to understand the client as a person. Pay close attention for clues as to what the client is thinking and feeling, not just to what is being said. Try to put yourself in the client's frame of reference.

Avoid selective listening. There's a tendency to listen for specific content--issues where we have particular expertise, needs that fit our service offerings, information that seems to confirm what we already thought. This can lead to a misunderstanding of what the client is trying to tell us. Self-interest, of course, is at the root of this shortcoming. Focus on the client instead.

Listen with both your ears and your eyes. Nonverbal signals can comprise more than half of what is conveyed in conversation, according to various studies. Watch carefully for that nonverbal communication. If you're taking notes, avoid spending too much time writing, which averts your eyes from the client. Make cryptic notations instead, then fill out the details immediately after the meeting while they're still fresh in your memory.

Don't respond or jump to conclusions too quickly. Our self-focus is often evidenced in our tendency to interrupt, talk too much, and offer unsolicited opinions. Concentrate on listening instead, speaking primarily when it's evident the client is looking for your input. Ask enough questions to adequately understand the situation before providing insights or advice. Consultation offered too soon can undermine your efforts to build trust and demonstrate your abilities.

Confirm understanding where appropriate. Sometimes we're hesitant to reveal that we don't understand what the client told us. Other times we incorrectly assume that we understand when we actually don't. In either case, it's a good idea to ask for clarification. One common piece of advice is to periodically summarize in your own words the key points you took from what was said, asking the client to confirm that you understand correctly.

Listening goes beyond merely gathering information or even learning about the other person. It responds to an innate human desire to be heard and valued. That desire usually goes unsatisfied because so few are really interested and listening. When you demonstrate genuine interest and listen intently, you are building rapport and trust with the client. Done right, listening is a gift you give to the client--one that both parties can share the benefits of.

Of course, effective listening is typically coupled with the ability to ask the right questions. That will be the topic of my next post.

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