None of us emerged from childhood without being told “you need to listen!” It’s one of the earliest messages that we receive in life—and it’s culturally universal. Listen to your parents. Listen to your teachers. Listen to your elders. Undoubtedly, some of us as children were better at it than others. If your parents still use family gatherings as a forum to gleefully recount your youthful disregard of their instructions, you’re not alone.
But how good of a listener are you now? In the consulting business, there is no greater skill to possess. Winning our clients’ trust—and their business—requires us to not just hear what they say, but to demonstrate that we understand what they need.
One of our Oracle Applications Consulting client partners, Josh Burch, consistently embodies the critical importance of active listening. We asked Josh to share his best practices for quickly earning the confidence of clients and colleagues through skillful listening and insightful responses.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who asked you how to engage in an active listening process that earns the trust and confidence of clients and colleagues?
A. First, make sure that you’re responding in the affirmative when someone is talking to you. Whether that’s a nod of the head, or verbally saying “I understand,” you’re relaying to them that you affirmatively hear them, and it instills confidence.
I also happen to be a massive note-taker. Maybe that’s because I have a really bad memory, so I need to do it. But I just write notes. I jot them down. I make sure I revisit them. I type them back up. I archive them. I revisit them before the next meeting so that there’s continuity. You don't ever want a client to feel like they’re telling you something for the second time. You may think it’s a subtle thing, but it’s not lost on clients. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to success you can have. If a client has to repeat something, especially a central request, then you’re putting yourself at a clear disadvantage because you’re indicating that you’re just not getting it.
A third critical component is not being afraid to literally say, “Let me make sure I heard you correctly. This is what you’re telling me.” Use those words and read your notes back to your client. If you got something wrong, edit your notes on the spot. If you got it right, then it’s written in stone, and it’ll hopefully live the life cycle of the project.
Even if you repeat it back to them word by word, you’re indicating that you’re thinking about exactly what they told you. This sets you up to move into the advisory role. You may respond, “Okay. I fully agree with you. This is how we can move forward.” But it may be an opportunity to say, “Okay. I did hear you correctly. Have you thought about this instead?” If I hear something that I strongly feel is not in the client’s best interest, it’s appropriate—and necessary—to gracefully and elegantly present another solution or alternative.
I’ve framed this in the context of client interactions, but all of these practices—affirmative responses, thorough note-taking, confirming what you’ve heard, and speaking up to suggest alternative solutions—apply to every business meeting. It’s important to be as buttoned-up in internal meetings as it is with clients, and I think we can overlook that too often.
Q. Are you a student of body language in a face-to-face meeting? What steps do you take to “read the room”?
A. I’m huge into that kind of observation, maybe to an extreme degree. My wife always laughs because I ask her after we go somewhere, “Did you see this? Did you see this person do that?” And she's like, “What are you talking about?”
When it comes to reading the room, the first step is understanding who the key stakeholders and decision-makers are. I generally take my cues from their demeanor. If they’re relaxed, and laid back, and start off with a joke or something lighthearted, it gives insight into what your approach should be. Some of the other people in the room may be more technical and regimented in what they want to talk about, and they want things well defined. That’s going to result in a much more formal and straightforward conversation.
You need to address them accordingly. Body language is a big part of that. You can pick up on cues by just looking across the table. How are they sitting? How are they responding? In short, be observant of the people who are running the meeting and mirror their tone and demeanor as much as possible.
Q: Do you have any tips for reading a room when there isn't a room? What cues can you pick up on over the phone or in emails?
A. With regards to email, people have different preferences that you can pick up on. Personally, I like bullets, and succinct, to-the-point, informational pieces as opposed to paragraph form. I think you can often interpret those preferences in an email thread—who needs things spelled out for them and who just wants bullet points—and provide it accordingly.
Oftentimes, a client does need a longer narrative that’s explanatory of the work that we’re doing. In those cases, my advice is that’s it’s always better to give them more than you think they need. They can decide what pieces to edit, or how to escalate it. You don't want to make the client come back to you two or three times to get information.
Trying to judge a room over the phone is by far, in my mind, the most difficult. You can’t see facial expressions, you can’t see body language, you can’t see how attentive they are. They may be multitasking. They may be at a coffee shop. You have no idea.
That said, you can generally get an idea of who you need to address—and how—based on who is asking questions or speaking on a call. A client may have eight people on a call. It quickly becomes evident who the main players are or who your counterpart is. They don’t have to be a senior stakeholder. It may be the person who’s running quarterback for the client who’s asking for all the information.
After a big conference call, my advice is to schedule a quick one-on-one call with your key point-person on the client side to review your notes and action items. It may sound inefficient to have a second call to go over something you just talked about. But I truly believe in the long run, it saves you time. If something was lost in translation on a conference call, a 10-minute review phone call will prevent significant problems days or weeks down the road.
How do you practice active listening at work? Give us your best advice in the comments section!