I have been reading, thinking, writing, and working on listening skills for some time. I continue to believe that it is the single most underdeveloped and underutilized skill in the world.
One of my old mentors said that great discovery sessions, a.k.a. client interviews, were the “keys to the kingdom” …and he was correct!
I thought I had captured the essence of it one time when I described it as “interviews so compelling that action was inevitable.” And frankly, that is the goal when it comes to prospects and client interactions.
Recently however, through sheer serendipity or karma or whatever, everything that landed on my desk or in my inbox was around this topic. It seemed to coalesce around this idea that the topic was more nuanced and needed more development for it to be helpful.
I have found these resources to be extremely helpful in developing my own listening skills.
Listening is Like a Game of Catch
In You’re Not Listening, Kate Murphy defines listening as:
“Listening is like a game of catch with a lump of clay… Each person catches it and molds it with their perceptions before tossing it back. Education, race, gender, age, relationship with the other person, frame of mind, connotation of words, all influence how the clay is shaped. And, the more people, the more complexity! And it is always in flux.”
Persuade More by Listening More
As I considered that simply telling people to listen more and ask more questions was incomplete, another mentor sent me a summary of Trey Gowdy’s book Doesn’t Hurt to Ask (I love the title!).
Gowdy says that the most effective “persuaders” listen as much or more than they speak. But he adds that asking the right question, at the right time, will help people move towards your position, if done effectively.
Hmmm…the right question at the right time in the right way is certainly a skill that can be developed.
And the more I thought about my previous advice (to just ask more questions), I thought that in many circumstances, if not done well, it’s just annoying.
Finally, Gowdy reiterates a point that has been made by many over the years—
All things being equal, try to be the most authentic, likable, and trustworthy. This is accomplished by better listening and interview skills.
Another great book, The Art of the Question, makes a similar point, “Persuade by asking better questions and help people make their own best choice.”
Understanding, Solutions, and Consensus from Listening
James E. Ryan’s book entitled Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions makes three great phrases to weave into your conversations:
1) Wait, what? It is impossible to read that without hearing a certain inflection and cadence. The pauses between the words and how each is intonated change everything. This question is all about understanding. It asks for clarification. The bottom line is to slow down and understand!
2) I wonder…followed by if or how or why. Wonder implies curiosity—not about being right, but about wondering together. It’s asking to consider and look for solutions and understanding.
3) Couldn’t we at least… This is my friend and mentor John Rhett’s super-power! It helps us get unstuck from disagreements to consensus. A way to get started before we know where we will finish. It’s the beginning of progress.
What Have I Missed?
With credit to my friend Richard Weylman, I would like to add one more.
When speaking with clients, ask, “What have I missed?” I try to end every meeting with some version of this question in the spirit of humility. I also know that I can get so caught up in my objectives sometimes that I forget to ask the client about theirs.
The Wise Old Bird
Flying home from a speaking engagement one evening, an older gentleman sitting next to me struck up a conversation. I told him I had been speaking to a group of Financial Advisors about communication skills and specifically listening skills. He gave a small grunt of acknowledgement and then pulled out his notebook and began to write.
Twenty minutes later he said, “I want to give you this old poem I heard when I was a kid. I think you will like it and be able to use it”.
He tore it out of his notebook and handed it to me. It said:
A wise old owl lived in an oak.
The more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Now wasn’t he a wise old bird!
Its origin is circa 1875. While its authorship is unclear, the wisdom is not!
I still have that piece of paper to this day.