“I can’t believe what they’re telling me!”, that’s what the little voice in my head screams in some of my initial client meetings. Fortunately it usually passes through the marketing and PR filter en route to my mouth and it comes out “That’s interesting. How’s it working for you?”
You wouldn’t believe some of the systems and processes I’ve seen over the course of my 16 years as a consultant.
Some people know that they have a horrible patchwork of broken systems that are loosely held together by duct tape and bubble gum. Others think their system is “flexible except for this one issue we’d like for you to fix.” I’ve learned that one man’s flexibility is another’s bad design.
Fortunately experience begets familiarity and some of the issues I see are remarkably similar to ones that I’ve solved in the past.
It’s tempting to show them just how smart I am and immediately jump to the solution. In fact, cutting to the chase would save them time and money so everybody wins. Except there’s only one problem: I didn’t listen.
You’ve Got To Listen
Listening is incredibly important, not only for consultants, but for everyone. Regardless of your walk in life, being an good listener will help you as you work with other people. Listening helps people to feel understood, to feel that you care. And that goes a long way in building a relationship.
Conversely, if you don’t take the time to listen, other people don’t feel understood. You’re not listening, so you simply cannot understand what’s going on. They assume you don’t care or that you’re just too self-centered. Without a good understanding of the problem, they reason, how can you possibly offer a good solution?
So before you offer a solution, take some time to stop, drop, and roll.
Don’t interrupt their description of the problem. Let them tell it to you in all its glory, even if you’ve heard it all before. It’s important to them to tell it.
Most people feel their situations are unique and quite different than the problems you may have faced in the past. Let them tell you why. In fact, you may actually learn that their problem is subtly yet significantly different that what you were expecting.
Two rules to keep in mind. First don’t interrupt. If the other person is talking, be quiet. You can nod your head in agreement or smile when appropriate, but don’t say anything. Second, when the other person has stopped talking, count to 5 to make sure that he is really finished and not just regrouping his thoughts. Only then do you know it’s your turn to talk.
Drop a few clarifying questions back to the other person. Ask them to explain in more detail or from another perspective. Many people will focus solely on the immediate affects of the issue or what they deem as pertinent. If you delve a little deeper you can uncover a lot more information. Asking relevant questions also reassures them that you are listening.
Don’t limit yourself to abstract or technical questions. Ask them about the impact of what they are describing. How is this situation affecting them personally? How has the problem affected their job or other’s perception of them?
Getting personal helps you to understand their motives. This is especially powerful when talking with a prospective client.
Roll back what you hear them saying. Restate their problem and its affects. Summarizing or restating what they’ve told you helps makes sure that you, do indeed, understand their issue. It also communicates to them that you understand.
This also helps to transition the conversation. It’s moving from their turn to talk to your turn. They’ve described the problem, now it’s your turn to offer suggestions or recommendations.
After they have completely described their scenario to their satisfaction, then you are free to offer your guidance. Your initial assessment may have been right on, but they wouldn’t have listened to you since you didn’t listen to them. Listening cost you only a few more minutes of time and the rewards were definitely worth it.
So, the next time you’re visiting a prospective new client or someone approaches you with a problem, remember: Stop, Drop, and Roll.