For those in the client* services industry, developing an active listening habit is more than good manners—it’s a survival skill.
As a strategist, the art of listening to clients can, at first, seem like a paradox. On the one hand, you’ve been hired for your expertise. On the other hand, there’s human nature—people want to be heard.
*Psst: you can replace the word “clients” with “employees” and all these lessons still apply.
Even the greatest business minds have a desire to be listened to, and if they’ve honored you by allowing you into their organization, they expect your deep attention.
Active listening: striking a balance
This paradox leaves one big question: when do we need to open our ears and ask questions rather than provide solutions? It’s a hard balance to strike, yet you can’t have one without the other.
The act of active listening builds trust—often, even greater trust than you’d get by saying the “right” thing. To have a real, open, and honest dialogue with your clients, trust needs to be in place first.
In You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Kate Murphy describes the importance of listening to create psychological safety, which is key to building trust. People who have conversational sensitivity pay attention to the words being spoken. And, more importantly, listen to underlying meanings and nuances of tone.
“Listening is not about teaching, shaping, critiquing, appraising, or showing how it should be done. Listening is about the experience of being experienced. It’s when someone takes an interest in who you are and what you are doing.”– Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening
The consultant’s role
There are times when a consultant needs to guide and recenter the conversation. Nothing makes this process more achievable and seamless than the trust you’ve already put in place by being a good listener.
If your clients happen to be your employees, listening becomes even more critical. According to a 2020 study by Emtrain, 1 in 10 employees say they do not trust that their leaders would listen if they made a complaint. Worse yet, 31% of employees said their leaders lack empathy and don’t show interest in their direct reports. All that adds up to employees not feeling supported, which affects their performance.
All of our strategy work at Integral begins with listening. Listening to understand our client, their employees, and their organization. This allows us to have a deeper understanding of challenges and opportunities as well as build the trust needed for a successful client-agency relationship.
The same goes for our clients who implement an ongoing listening approach with their employees. Listening through surveys, focus groups, data, and stakeholder interviews allows you to tweak your strategy along the way and ensure it meets the needs of those on the receiving end.
Remember, your clients (and employees) are closer to their problems than you or anyone else can ever be. Can you come in and be a problem-solver for them even when they reject your specific approach? The best consultants and leaders can.
Build rapport, get to know your client’s personal goals, and work to understand where they see areas of opportunity.
With trust and open ears, a healthy dialogue can begin.
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