Two ears, one mouth – and the whole brain…

Ask any senior director (especially the CFO) of a professional service firm – from consultants to architects – what the big profit drains are, and they are likely to put rework high on the list. That’s when a bunch of people – usually including some with the highest billable rate – has to start again.

Unsurprisingly, at the time there is often a fair amount of complaining and querying just how this came to pass. But all too often the lessons aren’t learned, or if they are they’re not applied. And the biggest lesson to learn is to LISTEN (yes, that’s me shouting).

We’ve all heard the wise words about us having two ears and one mouth and using them in that ratio. It really is the best place to start. If you’re filling the room with words, chances are you’re not really listening. Speak seldom and listen often is sound advice. But even when we follow that advice, there’s another part of us that can run powerful interference on our ability to listen – our brain. Here’s how to harness our brainpower:

  1. Tune out your inner dialogue: the constant chatter that we have with ourselves. About what’s for dinner, where you’d rather be, and possibly something not too flattering about the speaker.

  2. Instead, give your inner dialogue a more helpful script for the situation. For example, “I wonder what’s really going on here”, or, “This is interesting… so stay curious”, or, “What are they telling me they really need?”

  3. Restrain your over-eager suggestion box. You know, the one that leaps in with, “Ooh, we’ve got just the thing for that! Let me tell you how we fixed the exact same problem for Blah & Co”. It’s good to want to find a solution; however, these are best arrived at collaboratively, and only when you’ve fully heard the other person out.

  4. Focus your gaze on the speaker most of the time. That’s gaze, not death-ray stare, so keep your facial expression relaxed.

  5. Tune into how the speaker sounds – rushed? Confused? Worried? Annoyed? Notice the verbal signs that lead you to think that – speed, volume, tone and pitch.

  6. Practise matching your speaker’s volume and pace, whilst keeping what you say neutral – and don’t interrupt. In others words, speak as they speak whilst encouraging them to elaborate. There’s nothing more irritating for an already annoyed speaker when their listener coos and fawns as though calming a teething baby.

  7. Observe closely how the speaker’s body language is communicating, and whether that is in sync with the words they’re saying. If not, it may be that they are uncomfortable with the situation, and/or have to toe an organisational line – something worth exploring further.

  8. Ask open questions to help your speaker elaborate further, and closed questions to summarise and check the facts.

Appreciate that listening well is an art worth learning and notice how you feel when others listen well to you. Just because you can hear doesn’t mean you’re a great listener: for many of us it doesn’t come naturally. Listening well isn’t sitting there in passive silence – it’s highly active. We’re not just using our mouth and ears: we’re using our eyes and, above all, our brain.

You may also find this blog post interesting: Two effective sales tools: ears.

Worth checking out: great TED talk on listening by Julian Treasure.

David Intrator’s piece talks about listening in ‘a state of receptivity’.

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