This is one of a series of occasional posts summarizing the most important best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide which is now also available in a Kindle edition.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote, “If I were to summarize the single most important principle in the field of interpersonal relationships, listening is the key.”
In the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman argues that listening skills are vital for leaders. An effective leader must be able to sense how employees feel, and then channel that energy into the most productive directions.
The skill of listening can even help people get a job. When business leaders were asked to rate the most important characteristics they look for in hiring people, 73% rated listening as an “extremely important” skill. But when the same group was asked how many high school graduates actually have good listening skills, the answer was 19%.
When Suzanne Lowe and Larry Bodine published a survey of 377 marketing professionals on “Increasing Marketing Effectiveness at Professional Firms,” one of the best metrics for tracking success was whether rainmakers consistently listened to their clients.
In the book Advanced Selling Strategies, sales guru Brian Tracy explains four reasons why “Active sincere listening leads to easier sales:”
Listening builds trust. In a survey of professional purchasers, the single biggest complaint was that salespeople talk too much. If you show that you are interested in understanding what people really need, they are more likely to believe that you will provide it.
Listening lowers resistance. It helps to make customers feel relaxed and comfortable instead of tense and defensive.
Listening builds self-esteem. Everyone wants his or her views to be heard. So when you listen to a client, it shows that you respect their opinions.
Listening builds character and self-discipline. Hopefully, this fourth point won’t come up very often. But from time to time, you may sell to a client who is, shall we say, not overly dynamic. As they keep talking, it’s easy to start daydreaming about which type of salad you should order for lunch. But the more boring your client is, the more character you will build by listening. And the better you understand what the client wants, the more likely you are to get a new engagement.
Why is listening so hard for many lawyers? Well, first of all, you have to talk less.
Experts say that when you are building business relationships, you should spend 50% to 80% of your time listening. But when lawyers meet potential clients, many think that they need to talk quickly so they can list all the wonderful things their firm can do. This is a mistake.
The client is a lot more interested in her own problems than in your capabilities. If she did not think you were good, you wouldn’t be meeting. So you need to devote most of your time to focusing on what she wants, needs, and feels. As the old saying goes, that’s why you have two ears, and one mouth.
Great listeners also don’t argue. That’s another reason many lawyers find it difficult. To listen effectively, you must give up the need to be right.
If you want to become a better listener, there are dozens of books to read, and even a professional academic organization you can join (the International Listening Association, www.listen.org). Meanwhile, these five steps can get you started:
- Establish genuine interest by asking questions that you care about
- Take notes. Writing down what people say shows that what they say is important, and that you are paying attention. Just put the pen down if the talk turns confidential.
- Respond to the speaker’s nonverbal cues, and monitor your own, including eye contact, smiling, and frowning
- Keep people talking. Paraphrase, summarize, and restate what you hear. When you agree with people, they will think that you are smart. Especially if you don’t interrupt them or argue.
- Come prepared with good questions
Lawyers must start by “mastering the art of the easily answered question,” as explained in Kevin Daley’s Socratic Selling. The book describes several types of non-directive probes that will help a client think through a situation without trying to push her to a particular conclusion, and without distracting her.
For example, “draw probes” keep drawing out information until the client and the lawyer are satisfied that all the important points have been covered, such as:
- Tell me more about ____
- Give me an example of ____
- What else should I know about ____?
“Access” probes allow you to obtain access to other topics without forcefully changing the subject. These non-threatening questions introduce a new topic, but still leave the client free to take the conversation wherever she wants. For example:
- How does ____ fit the picture?
- Talk to me about your experience with _____
- How do you handle _____?
It sounds simple, but asking this type of question does not come naturally to me, nor to many lawyers I know, because we like to be in control. Well, clients do too. Professional salespeople have an old saying that “Whoever talks the most, will enjoy the meeting the most.” If you want to build a relationship, you want the client to be the one who enjoys the meeting.