07/01/2021

By John Jordan

Sendero Consultants John JordanWe’ve all done it, and most of the time we’re really good at hiding it.

You’re in a meeting and then it happens—you get distracted or bored. Suddenly, your email or news outlet calls your name and then you’re off to another mental planet. It’s OK to admit it. The virtual world is a distracting place; our listening skills suffer for it.

And if we’re on the receiving end of someone else’s poor listening, we can suffer for it, too—in painfully funny ways.

When Distraction Turns Strange

Take for example what happened to my friend José. He was in a critical client meeting, delivering a final presentation after having gathered business requirements and collaborating with his team for months. This was the moment of truth: when the client would see the custom-built deliverables and how hard he and his team had…

“Wait, what’s that noise?”

José’s internal and external dialogue was interrupted by a familiar sound. “Is that the theme song for Stranger Things?” Yep—one of the attendees was streaming the Netflix series during José’s presentation, and wouldn’t you know it, they forgot to press “mute.”

Like I said, most of the time we’re good at hiding our virtual distractedness.

None of us working in a virtual environment since March of 2020 are immune to the challenge of being fully present. And while a global pandemic forced us to shelter in place and work from home, another ailment has been burgeoning in virtual offices everywhere: distracted listening.

Multitasking leads to distraction, encourages poor listening, and can lead to unwise—albeit funny—professional decisions. For those of us in the client services industry, however, truly listening and understanding our clients’ needs is paramount to premium delivery.

While a global pandemic forced us to shelter in place and work from home, another ailment has been burgeoning in virtual offices everywhere: distracted listening.

The First Step towards Better Listening

How can we overcome distracted listening and be fully present with our clients —virtually or in person?

First, it’s important to recognize what New York Times journalist and author Kate Murphy identifies as bad listening skills in her book, You’re Not Listening – What You’re Missing and Why It Matters:

  • Looking at a phone, watch, around the room, or away from the speaker (i.e., any screen other than the Zoom or Teams call)
  • Responding vaguely or illogically to what was just said
  • Fidgeting (tapping on table, shifting position frequently, clicking a pen)
  • Interrupting while someone is speaking

Once we can look ourselves in the mirror (or these days—the bottom, righthand box of our screen) and confront our distracted listening, we can employ tools to engage in active listening.

Active Listening in Action

Kate Murphy once again encourages us to begin with what it’s NOT: “Hearing is not the same as listening, but rather its forerunner.” Murphy differentiates, “Hearing is passive. Listening is active.”

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) provides core competencies to help correct our distractedness and help transform us into active listeners. The ICF explains that coaches and consultants who listen will:

  • Consider the client’s context, identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs to enhance understanding of what the client is communicating
  • Reflect or summarize what the client communicated to ensure clarity and understanding (a technique sometimes called “mirroring”)
  • Recognize and inquire when there is more to what the client is communicating
  • Notice, acknowledge and explore the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviors
  • Integrate the client’s words, tone of voice and body language to determine the full meaning of what is being communicated
  • Notice trends in the client’s behaviors and emotions across sessions (or meetings) to discern themes and patterns

Better Listening, Better Delivery

At Sendero, we’re not perfectly undistracted listeners, but we do believe active listening makes our approach to consulting unique. We believe in and practice collaborating with our clients, listening to understand their needs. The result? We create deliverables based on what the client needs, rather than predetermining set deliverables based on the work we want to do.

One of our clients once commented on our commitment to listening when they said, “You know, we’ve had a lot of consulting firms come and work with us, but what makes your team different is that you actually listen to us.”

During your virtual or in-person meetings this week, which bad listening skills will you say “no” to? Which active listening practices will help you honor and listen to the people in front of you?

We believe active listening not only makes us better consultants, it helps us become better people. Confronting our distractions and being fully present with our clients lets them know we value them as people. After all, the clients we sit with on a Zoom call or during a socially distanced coffee are more than just business partners, they’re people who want to be heard.

The question is: can we hear what they’re saying?

We believe active listening not only makes us better consultants, it helps us become better people.

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