The Art of Active Listening

By Kristy Snowden, VP of Client Engagement

When was the last time you really listened? I’m not talking about smiling and nodding, or even listening and thinking of the next thing you want to say. I mean listening as if it were your one and only task. As we hear client feedback, project status, and the occasional team member rant, are we taking the opportunity to actively engage, to develop trust and respect in the relationship?

Being in client services is a lot like playing therapist — you must really listen to understand what a client is actually saying so that you can ask the right questions. It’s harder than it sounds. Think about the last disagreement you had with a partner. Was it truly about them leaving laundry on the floor, or was it ten other frustrations and this was the one that set you off? When a client says, “I’m not happy,” what are they saying and how do we best find out?

Active listening demonstrates that you understand what another person is trying to tell you about their experience. Communicating in this way is very different than the distracted listening that occurs in everyday conversation and during meetings.

When you can accurately reflect back what’s been said, you show that you’ve been listening and genuinely understand the message being conveyed. More importantly, you demonstrate that you care about the speaker. This trusting space allows us to go deeper, and sometimes even reach new realizations: insights that the clients themselves might not otherwise develop.

Being an active listener isn’t only important for success in client services; it’s an absolute necessity in building and growing strong companies and teams. It allows each of us to understand issues and create better solutions. When you’re actively engaged with your team’s concerns or broader business challenges, you can gain a better understanding of the problem and work together toward the best solution.

Here are some fundamentals. They are tougher in practice than in theory (and it’s hard to break old habits), but the benefits are even more powerful than you’d guess:

  • While listening, take notes to stay engaged and write down actions and questions for later. This is key for follow-through and provides a valuable reference after a few days have passed from the original conversation.
  • Put all the technological devices down. Yeah, it’s hard. But you will miss key points in a meeting because you were reading something else. More importantly, you’ll send the message that the person you’re speaking with isn’t your #1 priority.
  • Use the other person’s language to check understanding. This happens through reflective communication, clarification, reinforcement, and summarizing what you’ve heard. Make phrases like, “What I understood you to say is…” and “I understand you’re feeling…” part of your vocabulary.
  • Listen to learn. When you dominate a conversation, you’re not learning. Ask more, talk less.

I challenge each of us to practice active listening. It’s not always easy with constant requests, deadlines, and distractions. I struggle with it some days more than others. But I know the rewards are worth it and will result in stronger teamwork and happier clients.

Rational Ideas is the thought leadership hub for Rational, a digital agency and consultancy based in Seattle, WA.