The Listening Difference

To blather on smartly is human; to listen is humane.

When people think of hiring a consultant, they imagine paying for a smart person to get instant answers. Consultants are not cheap, so what could be wrong with that?

When I was a “baby consultant,” I thought of myself as an answer vending machine — insert quarter, out pops smart answer. My clients saw me that way too. Meetings were exhausting. I’d get questions in rapid succession. My smart answers, charts and graphs didn’t actually help anyone.

Now, fourteen years later (an adolescent consultant), I have learned that being helpful means supporting people to find their own answers.

Case in point: You and your teenager are driving to a soccer tournament 45 minutes from home when, for some reason, this normally inscrutable human starts to unload about a problem. Maybe it’s school politics, unrequited love, or a lousy teacher. Whatever it is, there you are in the catbird seat behind the wheel. Next to you – your captive (and soon to be grateful) audience awaits your wise counsel.

You begin:

Step 1: Give advice disguised as questions: “Have you gone to your teacher and told him what you’re going through?”

Step 2: Offer immediate intervention: “Are you kidding? On Monday I’m calling the school to give that teacher a piece of my mind.”

Step 3: Goad and shame: “On Monday, you are going to talk to your teacher, and if you don’t, I will!”

For some reason, the conversation stops, the squeak of the wiper blades whining rhythmically the rest of your otherwise silent car ride.

What does a surly teenager have in common with an organizational leader? Transition and uncertainty come to mind. Change is scary. It brings up anxiety. The first instinct is to make it stop! Fire people. Hire people. Wring hands and worry. Find that expert to banish that anxiety. Enter consultant.

The first thing a good consultant does is listen. She asks great questions that help slow you down to reflect, that tap your wisdom and help you step back a few inches. Questions like these:

  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What would good look like?
  • If you had that, what would that make possible?
  • Constraints aside, what might it take to create that?

As you reflect and share, a good consultant’s mind is not wandering off to “What smart thing am I going to say as soon as he stops talking.” She is paying attention, and listening for the following:

  • What are you saying and what are you really saying?
  • What does your “what’s wrong” reveal about your values?
  • What is underneath your “make this anxiety go away” questions and worries?
  • What are your strengths and how might we build on those?

Sharing your deepest worries and your big dreams with a consultant feels risky. Does she get me/us/it? Does she know stuff? Will this information stay confidential? Is she a spy?

A good consultant knows that the most important condition needed for working well together is trust. Trust that the consultant truly understands. She has walked in your shoes and not just read about your reality in a book. Her values and yours are aligned. She thinks we have a chance. She likes dogs.

Final word to the wise—beware the guru consultant who has arrived at listening Shambalah — you never arrive. Listening is a lifelong practice.

What difference has listening made in your life? Any stories you can share? Questions? Comments? I’m all ears.

Andrea John-Smith is listener in chief at Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

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Copyright May 2017