Do me a favor. The next time you are in a meeting, look around and count how many people are NOT on their cell phones or laptops. I tried this a week ago, and every single person in the room was multitasking! Let’s face it, work is hectic and deadlines are urgent. But if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that our clients want our full attention. Active listening is a skill that we can practice, and here are some simple ways to do just that.
Engage. Smile. Laugh even.
This seems so simple, but in the business environment, having a positive presence is often discounted. Take the risk and put down the cell phone. Make conversation. Keeping yourself open to clients lets them know you can be trusted and will listen to their wishes. A smile and laugh can go far to disarm stressful situations, and a positive attitude makes clients want to work with you again and again.
Ask the right questions. And more importantly, ask the right follow up questions.
Most consultants go into a start-up meeting with a generic set of questions to help them start programming a foodservice facility. It’s usually a pretty straightforward process for gathering the required information from the client, but this meeting offers an incredible opportunity to learn so much more if you are willing to listen. Clients will often let you know how they feel about something by the way they answer. This, in turn, becomes a great chance to follow up with a more specific question about what they like and don’t like. Not only does this give the consultant insight into the client’s mindset and the project goals, but also, it sets a level of trust.
Don’t make assumptions based on experience.
This can be a tough one. When a consultant has years of experience in the industry, it can be easy to “cut and paste” projects based on previous work. Actively listening to clients allows you to approach each project in a new light. After listening to the client’s needs, a consultant can then present options, never trying to push a client toward one thing or another, trusting that they know their specific operation best. When you are really listening, you realize project goals in a way that can be completely unique.
Ram Charan said it best when he wrote “The Discipline of Listening” for the Harvard Business Review, “Truly empathetic listening requires courage—the willingness to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones that may, at first, feel time-consuming and inefficient. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones.”
So, the next time you are in the position to gain a better understanding of something, stop your world for a moment. Don’t just hear. Listen. It may surprise you what you can learn, and you will certainly come away with a newfound perspective.