There's this one guy....Every time we get together it takes me about 2 minutes to remember why I don't accept a lunch invite from him more than a few times a year. We see each other, shake hands, tell the server what we want to drink and then one of us asks, "So what's been happening?" It doesn't really matter who goes first. If he's talking he's thinking about what he wants to say next. If I'm talking, he's still thinking about what he wants to say next. It's so obvious that by the time lunch arrives I can't wait to leave. I don't want to be that guy. I am terrified of becoming that guy.
Listening is a skill that is not only good social etiquette; it also has a direct impact on your ability to serve customers. Eventually poor listening will start to hurt you in the wallet as clients disengage and discover you can't help them with their biggest problems because you won't take the time to truly understand their biggest problems. Even if you get the diagnosis right, you'll never be able to guide your customers through execution because they'll see you as the pompous know-it-all that doesn't really "get" what they're all about.
At it's core good listening is about good communication and good communication is at the root of healthy relationships. If you want healthy relationships where loyalty and goodwill help you grow your business, listening is a skill you need to develop and hone, just like you work on things like public speaking or time management.
Here's what my struggle with listening looks like. I go out to meet a new prospect, a business owner that has heard good things about us from another client or maybe a referral source. I'm there to learn as much as I can, and also to answer any questions they have about me and what we do. I'm primed to listen. I know I need to listen well. Listening is my number one priority during this meeting.
But what happens?
The Awkward Silence and The Burning Question
There are two things that tend to get in the way of me being a good listener. The first is the awkward silence. If I have never met the person one of my biggest fears is discovering someone who stinks at conversation. It's terrible. There's no personal chemistry, no small talk, no substantive topics come up. Minutes stretch into days and we both just want it to be over.
The other obstacle to good listening is even worse. Let's say the person is a GREAT conversationalist and we really hit it off. Multiple times during our 60-90 minutes together I find myself fixated on a question I just MUST know the answer to. Maybe it's a burning curiosity. Maybe it's a critical detail they left out. Maybe it's a piece of advice or a tool I want to share to help them. But I'm polite, so I don't butt in. I wait for a break in the conversation. I wait my turn. And the whole time I'm waiting, I'm desperately trying to hold onto that question, that thought, that piece of advice, that tool. And because I stink at multi-tasking (and you do too) every single second I try to hold on and not forget I'M NOT LISTENING. I'm just waiting to respond.
But there's hope. It's a simple system that starts before I ever darken the door of a prospect's lobby.
So before the meeting I sit down, sometimes it's in the parking lot five minutes before I need to walk in the door, and I rack my brain to write down 21 questions. There's a sample at the top of this post that I just made up. The list is different every time, but a lot of the questions show up over and over again.
When I find myself in one of those awkward silences I say, "You know I was thinking about our meeting and some things I wanted to ask you. Let me see...we already talked about that...and that...oh yeah, what are some daily habits you've built that really help you out?"
That's step one, and that helps guard against the uncomfortable silences when you run into a poor conversationalist. But how do you stay present during the meeting?
As you start the meeting you need to pull out a notebook or piece of paper, the same one that has the 21 questions on it. Now you need to take some notes early, even if they don't mean anything. Just establish the expectation that you are going to be writing stuff down for most of the meeting. If you don't take notes early here's what happens. Twenty minutes deep in conversation, you pick up your pen to start writing for the first time and the other person immediately gets self-conscious. They start wondering what was so important you suddenly decided to start taking notes. Often they will forget what they were going to say. You're note taking is now an 800 pound gorilla in the room that becomes very awkward.
I am a natural note taker so this isn't an issue for me. I process stuff better (and listen better) when I take notes, but I'm careful to keep as much eye contact as possible. No one wants to stare at the top of my bald head for 90 minutes. I start taking notes early and often. When one of those curious questions crops up or when a critical detail is left out, I just write down enough to jog my memory and put a blank check box next to it. Then I forget about it and go back to being totally engrossed in the conversation.
When a logical break occurs, I go back to my notes and say, "while you were talking something popped into my head and I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it. Let me find it. Oh yeah, here it is. You said Bob can be a challenge. Can you give me an example so I understand what kind of challenge you are dealing with?"
There are two things that make this approach work so well.
1. It honors your host
Most people are not accustomed to being taken so seriously that their listeners take notes, don't interrupt while they are talking, and write down questions as they go. Treating people this way causes them to be transformed. Timid people become more sure of themselves. Stressed people relax. Harried business owners slow down and give you all the time you want. It's honor and people respond to it in a tangible way.
2. Transparency builds rapport
Early in the conversation I will often share my approach out loud. As I’m flipping through my notebook I say something like, “sometimes I stink at conversation and I want to be a better listener so I've made up this little system. Let me get to the right page here..." Sometimes they just say "no problem." Sometimes they want to hear more about the system. Sometimes they confess to being poor listeners themselves. But they are ALWAYS curious about the 21 questions. It's a great icebreaker. By sharing one of my struggles with them, they loosen up and are a little more willing to share some of their struggles with me.
Listening to and communicating with clients and prospects is one of the highest value skills you can master. If you want to go out on your own or take your firm to the next level good listening is critical. Getting just a little more disciplined in your approach before the meeting and a little more comfortable using your notes during the meeting can develop that skill a lot faster.