Ask anyone what their idea of a salesman is and they’ll usually tell you it’s someone who doesn’t stop talking, someone who wears you down with words until you surrender and buy, just to shut him up.
But it’s not like that at all, at least not outside the world of second hand cars and home insulation. The best salesmen listen more than they talk, and that’s true of the best consultants too. After all, consultant comes from the Latin verb consultare, to discuss, and discussion must be at least two-sided.
Listening is the basis of everything. There’s no possibility of your giving your client some good advice until you’ve understood what his problems are. And the best way of finding them out is to listen (and use all your other senses too).
But listening isn’t just a matter of sitting back and letting sound assault you. It’s work. It needs concentration. You must listen neutrally, deeply, sensitively and critically. It isn’t necessarily the downhill free-wheeling part of the consulting process.
Especially during the early stages of the consulting process you must listen neutrally, and avoid listening selectively to fit the evidence to the theory you’ve already constructed or are constructing. Don’t just hear what you want to hear. Record the evidence that refutes your theory as assiduously as that which supports it. Whatever theory you put forward must accommodate the evidence that goes against it.
And when you hear things that you disagree with, don’t combine argument with listening. The time for argument comes later. Listen as comfortably to things you don’t like as to the words that confirm your views.
Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean. That includes lying of course, for which you must always be alert. But sometimes it’s more complicated than that. It need not be as dramatically evident as in this song by Kurt Weill – Je ne t’aime pas – but people may be constrained by loyalty to say things they don’t really believe, and if you listen deeply and thoughtfully you can tell.
General Practitioners often say that the most important moment in an appointment comes at the end. The patient has explained the relatively trivial pretext for his or her visit, the doctor has produced a prescription, then just as he or she is about to leave, the patient says, ‘Oh, I know it’s probably a very silly thing, but I’ve got this lump…’
Listen to everything, and give equal weight to what the speaker regards as trivial or serious.
Think about what makes the speaker says what he says. Always consider the advantage or disadvantage to be gained by the speaker from what he says. Most of the people you listen to have an interest in the outcome of your engagement and will want to influence it.
And listen with a pen, pencil or keyboard…
Always make notes of what you’re hearing. And always seek clarification if something isn’t clear. You will never be a fool if you ask for repetition or clarification, regardless of the irritability or impatience of the person you’re talking too. Don’t let acronyms pass you by without getting the speaker to spell them out. How often I still listen to people who say things like, ‘The trouble with the CFD is that the TKIO doesn’t really understand the aims of the NNBVC.’ Everyone has their own familiar technical vocabulary and their own shortcuts. They often use these to establish their own belonging and to demonstrate that you’re an outsider, consciously or otherwise. Don’t let them get away with it!
Above all, when you’re listening, make sure you’ve understood everything. If you allow inaccuracy and misunderstanding to creep into the process at the earliest stage, it will only be amplified as the engagement continues, and the end result might be wildly inappropriate.