It really is all about them (so get out of the way and let them speak)


Do you ever get the feeling that people aren’t listening to you?

I had it just last week, when I met somebody for coffee. He’s a casual acquaintance, and probably destined to stay that way, if our conversation is anything to go by. 

Afterwards, I tried to dissect what had gone wrong. And the main problem was that he didn’t seem particularly interested in what I had to say. When he did listen, it was simply to find a way to segue back to himself. 

Now the thing is, I can talk with the best of them.

Just a few days before that, I’d met up with another acquaintance and pretty much dominated proceedings. So much so that afterwards, I sent a message to say I’m not normally such a conversation hog, and promising to keep my mouth firmly shut at our next encounter so he could do all the talking. 

Not at all, he replied. It was fascinating

Maybe it was (who am I to judge?) but I’m still sticking to my resolution to redress the balance when we next get together. Because when conversations are one-sided, they’re always less satisfying – whichever side of the divide you’re sitting on.

It’s the to-and-fro that makes them richer and more rewarding. Not to mention unpredictable and fascinating.

Those two conversations started me thinking about what makes one person a good listener, and another a bad one. How some people instinctively realise it takes two to tango, and others simply launch into a monologue.

Many years ago, somebody said to me, “You have two ears and one mouth, and should use them in proportion.” It wasn’t meant as a reproach, but I’ve always remembered those words when I’m in conversation with somebody. Especially when I’m on a briefing or feedback call, or interviewing a case-study contact.

The subtle art of listening

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have all the answers, and in the process let the real answers pass you by. So here are my top tips for getting out of the way and making the most of conversations: 

  • Assume nothing. Your previous interactions may well be relevant to the conversation you’re currently having, but they may equally lead you down a blind alley. We’ve all had the experience of thinking I know where this is heading and jumping to false conclusions. 
  • Pay attention. Our minds often wander when we’re talking to people, and we don’t really listen to what they’re saying. If you’re in listening mode, you can sometimes zone out if the other person is talking at some length. It’s useful for both them and you to interject regularly to ensure you’ve understood, and to nudge them along. It helps you focus, and keeps them engaged. 
  • Ask lots of questions, but make sure you listen to the answers. I always precede my briefing calls with a warning that it might feel a bit like an interrogation. But I also explain that asking lots of questions is the only way to get under the skin of their business, product, service, market or campaign goals. 
  • Zoom out, then in. When people are in full flow, it’s often difficult to see where they’re headed conversationally. Sometimes, they don’t know themselves, so it’s useful to pull back and try to see the story arc, then summarise and distil so you’re sure you’ve understood. 
  • Expect the unexpected. Time and again, I’ve had conversations go in a direction that surprised both me and the person I’m talking to. A vital angle to a story emerges, or a previously hidden selling point suddenly comes up. Or you both realise that you’ve been talking about a side issue as the main event becomes unmistakably clear. 
  • Get inside the mind of the speaker. Rather than seeing the world from your perspective, try to see it from theirs. What is it they need – or don’t yet realise they need? What are their frustrations? How can you help? What is it you could say that would reassure them, whether they’re a client or prospect? What’s the single most important issue for them?
  • Play devil’s advocate, even if you agree with them. We’re all open to a sneaky little cognitive trap called confirmation bias, when we’ve already decided what we think and are now simply looking for arguments to support it. So don’t be afraid to shine a light on the logic, and see if it holds up. 
  • Ask them for the solution, instead of proposing yours. Most people know what it would take to fix their problem, but often, they fail to recognise that they already have the answer. As a salesperson, marketer or consultant, the best approach take is often simply to tease it out by asking the right questions. 

Ironically, my casual acquaintance has recently changed direction and now works in a role that requires serious listening skills. He told me about it at great length over a second latte, as my mind went back to the two ears/one mouth advice I received all those years ago.

Then again, it only works if one person does it.

And on this occasion, that person was me.