Listening better — particularly as a consultant — is a strategic tool. As a consultant, you have to listen. Really, you have to listen. Really.
It doesn’t mean listen until you are able to interject your point of view. It means listen to what your client is saying and eventually you’ll realize what the client needs. Sometimes your client is very clear about it and sometimes he or she is overwhelmed with things and can’t be extremely clear. So you need to listen.
Recently, McKinsey Quarterly had an article on listening better. It’s mostly directed to CEOs, but it’s about listening so clearly it’s an issue up and down an organization. The three suggestions in the article are:
1) Show respect
2) Keep quiet
3) Challenge assumptions
As a strategic healthcare communications management consultant, I have to listen both to prepare a proposal, but also the recommendation requires usually lots of listening. While I am a consultant, this goes for anyone within an organization trying to help address a challenge or an opportunity. My suggestions are specific to the “tool” of listening as applied to resolving an issue or addressing an opportunity. Here goes:
First, understand the whole picture and that means talking to several people in different positions to understand the whole process. Any of the projects I take on usually involve people from various areas of responsibility within an organization and external to an organization. As to listening, here starts my breakdown:
1) Listen to everybody who plays a role in the issue/opportunity (internal/external to the organization)
Next I listen (an interview) which usually means a minimum of 30 minutes. Why? Because part of that time is developing trust. Not like we’ll be best buds, but that person needs to understand you will take their input seriously. And I do. I often record the conversation, ask them if they want me to say it was them giving me information or leave it anonymous. With a small interview group that’s hard but sometimes it can be done. So remember the beginning is trust.
You then ask pre-set question but LISTEN to the answers because you need to pull more out of the person based on the information they give you. Realize that within the context of the answers likely is going to be what will help address your concerns. That leads me to:
2) Give them time to trust you first with their answers
Last, map out what they said, see and analyze it. Here, listen to what is said and see if there are any common points or concerns. Or look where there’s a ‘hole’ in what people are telling you. Sometimes I find the “I don’t know” to be at the heart of a challenge. Finally leading me to:
3) Look for common themes
Most important, report back (as you are able to) to all those interviewed – that solidifies the trust. Underscore that they’re feedback mattered and you will use that to provide to your client
4) Report back to interviewee
— which is aligned with —
5) Encourage the client to report back to those people when a system is addressed, corrected – so the person knows how their feedback was incorporated.
Listening as a tool is simple conceptually, but often more complicated to do. People challenge you on a number of things a) do you really need that much time [yes], b) can’t you just email them [no for the most part,] c) can I do it [likely they won’t be as open with you,] and d) do I have to get back to them? [yes, if you want to them to take them seriously.]
Again, simple conceptually but it gets more complicated as a tool. But it’s one of the most important tools as it builds trust and that is one of the more important assets you can have.