- Everyone already gets it – listening is a critical business skill.
- Think about the most productive and enjoyable conversations that you have in your daily life. Make your client interactions as much like those conversations as possible.
- To become a better listener, you must also become a better talker.
Defining the core skills of a broad and ambiguous profession like Management Consulting is difficult. That being said, there is no shortage of articles and books on just that topic, often complete with flowcharts and models (in case you haven’t noticed, consultants love those sorts of things).
I want to highlight one fundamental consulting skill: listening.
I will explain below that improving listening requires you to also become better at talking. The two are inextricably linked.
Let’s leave straw-man arguments aside. Almost everyone will agree that listening is a key consulting skill (as well as a critical “I want to be a good all around human” skill).
There are many, many articles that explain active vs. passive listening and a host of related topics.
I won’t repeat much of that here. Instead I want to share the things that have helped me become a better listener and thereby made me a better management consultant.
Breakthrough (learning something that I should have already known)
While working for a large management-consulting firm, I was slated to appear in a number of firm-sponsored podcasts as a Subject Matter Expert (or maybe it was because I was an emerging Thought Leader? Did I mention this was a consulting firm?).
My firm considered this to be “speaking to the media,” which in turn meant I needed to complete a “speaking to the media” course.
The objective of the course appeared to be to make us better at speaking to journalists or, at very least, to weed out anybody likely to actively embarrass the firm (I would argue that the process of becoming a senior manager or partner at a major firm should have already accomplished the last task…).
I learned one of the most important lessons of my career that day.
I sat in the conference room with a few other senior people and the external “media training instructor.” We chatted about what we did for a living, why we were there and what we wanted out of the class. The instructor eventually turned on a recorder and did some mock interview questions with us.
The instructor then played back two recordings. One recording was of us answering those mock journalist questions. The second recording revealed that the instructor had been secretly recording us prior to the class officially starting.
The juxtaposition of the two recordings was startling.
The informal discussion (secret recording):
- Short questions followed by short answers, then more questions
- Lean, declarative sentences
- Frequent pauses and breaks in the conversation
- Everyday language free of jargon (well, mostly, it was a room of consultants after all)
Formal interview (knew we were being recorded):
- Short questions. Long answers.
- 80% of the eventual answer had little or nothing to do with the question
- Use of specialized terms & jargon
- Consultants dominating the conversation
The instructor made the point that if we gave short answers to interview questions, we were more likely to “avoid talking ourselves into trouble.” The much bigger realization that I came to was that regular day-to-day conversation is so much more effective than the business-speak we often adopt in formal settings.
To put it another way, the conversations that best transmitted useful information and tended to influence opinions (mine and theirs) were the ones I had with friends and close colleagues. These conversations have common characteristics:
- Equal participation. Both people speaking. Both people listening.
- Short questions or statements of opinion / facts by one person followed by short answers or follow up questions by the other person
- Frequent and natural pauses
- Confidence my statements influenced the conversation
- Use of props (whether that be jotting something on a napkin or arranging coffee cups to illustrate a point)
Why Don’t Management Consultants Talk That Way?
If I found these types of conversations tend to be most productive, why did my firm always try to make me do the exact opposite?
- Why did we keep taking massive powerpoint decks with us when we met new clients? Did anyone really think that a better diagram on slide 18 would make the sale? If we thought so, why didn’t we just put it on slide 1? Would I be more likely to buy work from a consultant because they talked to me for an hour and let me ask questions at the end?
- How many times was I completely bored during presentations from my own firm? Why did I think the client would feel any differently?
- Why did we spend so much time guessing what our client wanted from us rather than engaging with them and asking questions?
- Where was the evidence that clients loved to listen to me talk?
Would my interactions with friends be more productive if I put up a powerpoint presentation while I spoke? Would I be more receptive to new ideas if the other party spoke for 20 minutes straight and then asked if I had any questions?
Obviously, the answer was no. Yet I often did exactly those things with clients.
That day, I resolved to make my professional interactions with clients as much like coffee shop conversations as possible (without the $5 lattes of course. Also, I haven’t figured out how to charge my friends an hourly fee. Yet.).
There are many cases where a more formal environment makes implementing this approach more difficult. A presentation to a Board of Directors is a more difficult environment to adopt a conversational approach. Nevertheless I was convinced, and remain so to this day, that I should strive to make even a BOD meeting as much like a coffee shop conversation as I can.
In my next article, I’ll share with you the specific tactics I have developed to communicate more effectively with clients.
Patrick has spent the bulk of his career in management consulting. He is the President of Vazara Consulting and is currently focused on building companies in the advanced materials industry.