My husband (an attorney) has a colleague that has business cards printed with the request: “Please stop talking”. He has been known to pass them to people during meetings. When he first told me about this I laughed and thought of how often I would have loved to have a card like that to pass out! But, of course, I would never be able to bring myself to actually do it. Still, the thought is nice.
In one of President Obama’s recent speeches a listener fainted, and as the medics were arriving to assist, he joked, “This happens to me all the time. People are standing up too long. It’s because I talk too much!” All joking aside, I think we all fall victim to this leadership pitfall sometimes. We are so passionate about our message, or so convinced our advice will help, or so desperate to be heard, that we end up losing our audience.
I recently recommended a consultant that is trying to build a solid local business to one of my clients. I was very impressed by this consultant in social situations, and thought maybe it would be a good fit. Later, when I asked the client about the connection, he told me that he had called the consultant but was disappointed. When I asked why he said that in the 60 minute call, he maybe got to say 20 words. Every time he tried to explain the problem, he was cut off with an “I know just what you mean, I solve problems like that all the time, here is what you need to do, blah blah.” The consultant was so busy “selling” that the client never got to tell his story.
Much has been written about the importance of good listening skills, but this last week I have been thinking about how often talking less can mean being “heard” more – how less talk can actually result in closing the deal, making the sale, getting the vote, or landing the job. They key is using the times when we do speak to ask the right questions. This is even true in the social media realm, which seems to strongly favor a “send” mode of communicating our point of view. Rarely do I see a tweet, for example, that asks a great question. But when I do, I notice it gets a lot of responses, ignites quality conversation and inspires more retweets than usual.
But, back to my client.
I recommended another consultant for him to talk with, and this time I chose a champion listener – a woman I have been on panels with in the past and have seen in action. She landed the job. When I asked her what she did, and she said she spent 20% of the time talking and 80% of the time listening. In the beginning she only asked questions and listened. Near the end of her meeting with the client she increased her amount of talking. Here were some of her questions:
- What do you think is the biggest challenge in this situation?
- What do you think needs to be done?
- Why haven’t any of the past efforts to solve this problem succeeded?
- What, in a perfect world, would be the best outcome?
- How can I add the most value?
After listening for most of the conversation, she spent the last few minutes in a “prescriptive” mode – where she was able to show her expertise in not only understanding the situation, but in why these problems happen and what works to solve them. She was able to show how she was a good fit by emphasizing how her methods and approach would align with what she had learned about the culture of the organization through listening up front. It’s no surprise she got the work.
As I head out this week for an all-day series of meetings with one of our big clients, I will be thinking about what I am going to ask, not what I plan to say…
How about you? What are some of your favorite questions to ask clients?