I recently had a conversation with a friend that was facing a tough decision and feeling a certain amount of distress over the predicament she was in. As she described her challenge and the difficult choices she faced, I did my best to be a good listener. I asked questions, tried to help her see possibilities, evaluate the pros and cons of each and come to some resolution on the issue.
I admit that I probably missed a few signals along the way that my attempt to help was causing more anxiety rather than less. So I was surprised when the conversation halted abruptly and she said, “You’re not getting it! How can you be so obtuse!?”
After searching my brain for the definition of obtuse—insensitive, imperceptive, dull-witted (ouch!)—I wondered how my sincere desire to help had backfired. It was at this point that my friend added, “The problem is, men listen to solve while women listen to relate.”
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I don’t know how accurate the gender portion of that statement is, but I recognized immediately that at least in this example she was right. My friend just wanted to be heard, but I was trying to fix. I was asking analytical questions aimed at finding a solution, while she was looking for empathy and understanding.
In our business we’re all about helping our clients to listen – to their customers, their employees, and their partners – and then act on what they’ve heard. We’re big on the belief that more listening is a key to better relationships and better businesses. The idea that more listening can cause friction, rather than ease it, was one that I hadn’t really considered.
But there are several ways to listen, with different intents and purposes. Whether with friends, family members or customers, the key is to recognize the situation and the needs of the person you’re speaking with. There are many times, of course, the customer does need someone to help them solve a problem or respond to a challenge. In those instances active and inquisitive listening is appropriate. Asking broad questions and following them up with narrower queries to probe for detail is critical to gaining a complete picture of the customer’s situation and begin identifying a solution. Like the line of inquiry from an investigator, some questions are aimed at finding options and alternatives, and others are designed to eliminate them.
Sometimes, however, customers just want to talk. They appreciate sharing information with someone who is not a colleague, but still knows their business. They’re looking to learn, to understand, to share their expertise, or to build rapport with a trusted contact from a key supplier – to relate. There is no problem to solve, and no solution is necessary. The key to being a good listener in that context is to use questions to express understanding and expand the conversation, rather than limit it.
Since that conversation with my friend I’m doing my best to defy the stereotype. On one or two occasions I’ve actually asked my wife how she wanted me to listen—to help her make a decision or to be a sympathetic ear. I’m hoping to get better at this so that some day I won’t have to ask.