Today’s post burns as I write it, because my team (under my leadership) failed to know when to talk versus listen during a meeting with a VIP client.
In this case, we knew the client well and their specific need was right in our sweet spot, and we had genuine value and the capability of delivering it. Unfortunately for both of us, the people with the project did not feel listened to or even heard, and so the door closed and we were the ones who closed it.
How do you know when to talk and when to listen? Hindsight is 20/25, meaning in retrospect you can be fairly clear about what you should have done. It’s an easy answer with other factors.
The easy answer is to listen more and listen right away!
TEN COMMON TALKING/LISTENING MISTAKES
Listening mistakes: 1) Not listening enough to truly understand, and 2) going too far in the wrong conversation before realizing you’re off track.
We made both of these mistakes, first not listening to our client well at all, and secondly not recognizing it until way too late in the meeting.
Talking mistakes: 3) Talking instead of listening, and 4) failing to use your words to confirm your listening. We made both of these mistakes too, talking about ourselves instead of them, and failing to repeat back what they were saying to us.
Part of our mistake tied to another very common scenario: We went into the meeting with an incorrect understanding of what our VIP client thought the meeting was about, and that led us to hear everything they said in the wrong context.
Interpretation mistakes: 5) Incorrectly identifying the purpose of a meeting from the other party’s perspective, and 6) hearing everything the other party says in the light of your incorrect assumptions.
Imagine you were meeting with an investor because you recently launched a small tax accounting firm. When they say, “I’m not sure what to do with the windfall of last year,” you may hear that in the light of your expectation that they are looking for a company to invest in. But what if they were in the meeting with you because they needed tax services? In that case, “I’m not sure what to do with the windfall of last year,” would mean something completely different.
Course-correction mistakes: 7) Ignoring the signs of misalignment, 8) failing to course-correct, 9) fear about deviating from your team’s plan, and 10) trying to cover up your mistake at the last minute if you realize you’ve screwed it up.
With at least ten ways to make a big mistake, how do you manage a meeting to ensure you’re talking and listening the way you should?
THE SIMPLE PROCESS
Step 1: Start every meeting by clarifying purpose.
We use story structure to do that: Clarifying a basic beginning problem, a middle with an action, an end with a better outcome, and a main character who happens to be the people we’re talking to.
“Dan and Judy, I want to make sure we’re all in the same meeting. My understanding is that you (MC) had such a good year last year that you need to identify some new potential companies to invest in (Beginning), and we’re going to take a look at our new tax accounting firm’s vision, mission, P&Ls, and Projections (Middle), so that you are able to make a decision (Ending) about whether to consider us for your expanded portfolio. Is that your understanding?”
Right or wrong, they’ll tell you, and it’s better to know up front.
Step 2: Check as you go.
Checking is the end of step one, and it’s also the repetitive process of making sure you remain on course. As the perspectives shifts from the forest to the trees, each movement and sub-movement requires the same checkpoint.
Use the exact words the other party is using. If they say, “We want an Excel spreadsheet with numbers from the last five years on it,” don’t respond with, “So you want a clear financial picture?” Say, “So you want an excel spreadsheet with last years’ numbers on it.” You can add to that, but make sure you include the words they used.
Our VIP client asked by name for a specific service, and we never once used those exact words. They didn’t feel heard or understood.
Shame on us.
Step 3: Listen to your gut, spot red flags, and adjust the “story of the meeting” accordingly.
By “gut” I mean emotional intelligence, which reads abstract and subtle body language. Red flags are feelings automatically triggered by observing body language. Listen to the signals and respond.
Meetings can be adjusted with story structure, and I’m not suggesting that you bend your truth like a pretzel. I mean that the “story of the meeting” may change as you understand more.
I once met a prospect to talk about a speech. I would have loved to be their speaker, but I got a gut-feel reactions that they needed something else. So I worked a little harder at defining the problem (a beginning), and the outcome they wanted (an ending), and I served them better by exploring options (middles) to ensure that what they bought truly matched their goals.
We are all emotionally intelligent. Listen to your feelings, and try to figure out what’s causing them.
THE OUTCOME OF USING THE PROCESS
Sales, customer-service, and leadership all benefit from knowing when to talk and when to listen.
Sometimes a tough lesson helps you re-learn what you already know about business communication skills. I am quite confident how I’ll lead my next sales or customer service meeting – by clarifying the purpose up front, by checking as I go, and by listening to my gut for the signals to adjust the group story. That way I’ll know when to talk and when to listen so that any person, prospect, or client feels like the VIP I know them to be.