We’re all guilty of it at times- not saying exactly what we mean. Our minds get busy, things become confused, we might feel anxious or judged, and that salient point we were trying to make ends up getting lost – or at least skewed – in translation. That’s why you can’t always take what people tell you completely at face value. In my experience, if you want the full picture you have to try a different type of listening — one that allows you to dig a bit deeper and hear what is really on someone’s mind.
That’s a lesson one of my clients, Rebecca, was able to learn. A management consultant in her 30s, Rebecca had branched out on her own after rising through the ranks of an FMCG company — a high-powered, performance-driven culture with structured and disciplined practices. It was an environment in which she had thrived, making a name for herself in senior sales roles.
When Rebecca embarked on her new consulting role she continued with this disciplined approach, preparing thoroughly for meetings with clients and focusing on all the expertise she could offer.
What she got, however, was varying results: while some clients would be happy with her work, others rated her performance only average.
For someone so used to doing a great job, this was confusing and unsettling. Why wasn’t she getting the success she’d had in the past?
It was then she sought help on my coaching couch.
A highly intelligent woman, Rebecca identified early on in our discussions that she seemed to be failing to diagnose her clients’ needs upfront. Although she would think she had gained a grip on what a client wanted during their important first meetings, as time went on it became apparent her understanding wasn’t so clear. Her projects were a little like Swiss cheese; as she bit further into them, the more holes she would find.
So in the coaching we began exploring the art of listening- deep listening. That’s not about just listening to the words people say, but also listening for the more subtle subtext and nuances that hint at the real situation, then picking up on those and questioning further.
As we discussed this, it started to dawn on Rebecca just how much she’d been assuming about her clients — listening to her own thinking instead of their’s.
In her previous company, she’d interacted with people like her — intelligent and used to communicating and working in the same, structured way the company had prescribed. Out in the wider world, however, she was interacting with people who were different to her and communicated in a range of ways.
And when they weren’t crystal clear, instead of eliciting clarification and relying on them to provide the necessary information, Rebecca had been filling in the gaps with her own assumptions, presuming she already had the knowledge to solve their problems.
It was a situation true to the adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It was clear things had to change.
What Rebecca needed to do was shift her focus away from what she thought her clients needed, and back to the clients themselves. And she needed to trust that, no matter how flaky or uncertain they appeared at first, they could provide her with everything she needed to know.
Her role, she realised, wasn’t to give her clients what she knew, but to work with them to uncover what they needed and what suited their situation.
Changing from her old methods, which in the past had been so successful, to a new approach involved a leap of faith. She stopped her exhaustive preparation, which immediately freed up more time, helped boost productivity and, more importantly, allowed her to focus solely on the client and what they were telling her in meetings.
Listening deeply while she was there and being truly present meant she was able to give her clients time to move beyond any busy or confused thinking. In turn, she was able to gain a complete picture of a project right from the beginning and come up with more intelligent, creative and appropriate solutions.
And it paid off. She now hears consistently positive feedback from her clients — loud and clear.