Key Skill - Listening


There’s lots out there saying we only listen to respond, and being a coach and a solicitor this is something I am aware of because I really need to hear what someone is saying. Not what I think they may be saying, or meaning, or what I think they want to know, or how they should fix it and waiting for my chance to tell them. Just listening and hearing with no preconceived ideas and none of that jumping to conclusions.

One of the main reasons clients move professionals is because they don't feel listened to or understood. It may be that what they seem to be asking for is impossible or inadvisable - but if we take a few minutes to make sure they know they are heard and understood first, before we advise them on alternatives then it may well be a different story. Rather than a damaged or broken working relationship it can actually be a stronger one. Even though you can't give them what they really would have wanted.

Imagine if you wanted chocolate ice-cream. The person you asked said 'no you can't, here is your strawberry icecream'. You repeat your request, they repeat their response. It would be frustrating until the point where you give up - either by going somewhere else, or relenting and begrudgingly and unhappily accepting the strawberry. Feeling like you weren't listened to and that what you wanted was unimportant to them. You wouldn't go back there or recommend anyone else to either. In fact, that would likely be a story you would tell your friends, family, and colleagues.

Now imagine they said, 'yes the chocolate flavour is amazing, which is probably why we have sold out. We only have the strawberry and vanilla left, however the strawberry is almost as good as the chocolate for that sweet depth of flavour.' Yes this is a very basic analogy, but here the icecream vendor has acknowledged and empathised with the outcome 'need' and the reasons behind it, and then been clear it isn't possible so this would be the next best thing to get as near the outcome as possible.

There is also the presumption about the outcome need in the choice for chocolate flavour being 'sweet' when we hadnt actually verbalised it. Verbalisation is more important in reality as there are lots of reasons why someone wants something. And the more impactful and large the request, usually the more important, and likely personal, the reasons... the need... behind asking for that particular outcome.

We can only work out the outcome need, and convince someone we understand them, that what they want is important, if we listen. This is as applicable in real life as it is at work.

Listening is a skill behind a lot of the other skills required as a professional. Just in the consultation setting it is essential for:

  • rapport building and maintenance
  • setting the scene, expectations and boundaries
  • pre-empting unwanted behaviour
  • discussing fees
  • taking instructions, giving advice, answering questions
  • closing

Giving advice? Yes. Absolutely. I expect you don't monologue in your advice giving :0) and instead pause to check in that they are following and understanding you? Exactly.

Answering questions? We listen to their question. Allow a gap at the end of their speaking to make sure that was the entirety of their question before we speak (as everything they have to say is important). Then we answer, checking their understanding.

Then when they ask the next question (or are silent) does it raise questions about whether they understood what you have previously said? Maybe this next question sounds the same as the last one you thought you had very comprehensively answered. That suggests they didn't get the understanding they needed from what you said. So, either you misunderstood the point of their question (and yes as the professional it is our job to work out what their actual question is), or they didn't understand so you need to explain it in a different way with different words. Please DO NOT just repeat back the same answer word for word. That, in case you weren't aware, is a sure-fire way of losing or angering a client (aka icecream scenario above). And again it is our role, our job, to be able to communicate the same thing in different ways, as ultimately it is up to us to ensure our clients make informed decisions (not the right one as we see it, just an informed one) and they cannot do that without understanding.

Listening is a skill which is great, because no matter how good (or not) you are at it now, you can get better. If you want to :0) You can even practice on your friends and family - just notice whether you are listening eager to hear more or listening for the pause so you can 'chip-in'. Then just sometimes decide to bite your tongue (I mean, you already know what you're going to say anyway, you don't know 100% what they are going to say) and decide to continue listening instead. They may not notice exactly what you did or why it feels different, but you will have given them an amazing experience.


NB. On another listening tangent, perhaps it’s not surprising we don't listen well to others when we struggle to even listen to our own body. Being open to hear what’s it trying to communicate and taking that message on board is another thing. Our cells are all communicating with each other all the time (for example hormones are messengers) and the brain-gut is one most will have experienced (nervousness/excitement = butterflies and various other physiological responses we don’t need to go into here :0) ) But with all the noise from life, from work, from our own internal expectations sometimes we can’t hear it communicating it’s wisdom.