Monday, 06 June 2011 17:15
Listening to clients is at the core of solid communication efforts. This is perhaps even more important to IT professionals than it is to average consumerism because we often deal with complex topics.
But listening is not simply affording someone the courtesy of audience, nor is it simply letting them speak because it’s their turn. The goal of listening is to understand the true nature of a client’s problem. It is an interactive, engaged discussion of discovery whose fruits are clear problem determination and resolution. In that order.
Demanding that any client, user, manager or executive fully explain themselves is not good listening either. It is a poor one-way model for collaboration; it builds fences NOT bridges. When communication goes south, you will probably be faced with silence out of nothing more than false politeness.
Understand that silence and head nodding agreement can mean one of several things:
1 – Mission accomplished
Yes, I’ve understood you!
This is typically the one we WANT to hear, so we presume it to be so most of the time.
The Risk? Potentially none, but ignorance is bliss.
2 – Partial absorption: Requires further baking
“I haven’t understood you completely, and I’m still attempting to process all of what you’ve told me. I might require more time to fully understand all this information, and may have questions later when some of it starts to sink in. I might ask you again, but then again, I might not…”
The Risk? Partial knowledge or interpretation means the client will fill in the missing pieces with what they *think* they heard. Those assumptions will come back to bite you – especially if they choose not to reengage the dialogue.
3 – Looking the fool
“I haven’t understood you, but I don’t want to look foolish in front of you because you act like your time is important – OR – I haven’t understood you and we are in a group setting. I don’t want to look foolish in front of my peers, boss or subordinates. They’re all nodding their heads and seem to get it, so I’m hoping someone will explain it to me later in language I understand.”
The Risk? No one likes to feel they haven’t understood something. Fear of asking important questions early leads to a paralysis of activity and co-operation later.
4 – Research required
“I haven’t understood you completely, and am hoping to research this all a little further to fill in the gaps myself. I have some lingering questions that I believe I need to ferret out myself.”
The Risk? IF a client takes it upon him/herself to get educated on your topic, understand that it is still potentially non-communicated. You won’t know if they actually performed any due diligence, so you cannot assume they did from silence.
5 – Wait and see
“I’m a practical/visual type. I’m hoping that later on, when I actually see this all in action that it will finally make sense. I’ll let you continue your speech and involve myself when this idea is made reality, and then provide feedback.”
The Risk? While you now believe that everyone has signed off and will start on your plan, this individual is withholding his/her vote of acceptance until it’s actually up and running. The potential waste of work here is high, and the 11th hour death-marches start with this definition of silence.
6 – The personal touch
“What I’m hearing is that later, you will hold my hand in this process and personalize it to me. I’m expecting that you will follow up with me personally, and your speech today is just an introduction.”
The Risk? Personal touch types cannot work from pieces of paper, emails, phone calls or boardroom presentations. They require face-to-face communication and an emotional connection to a concept. Without that personal touch, this type of individual will fail to engage. Silence of this kind is in the form of non-communicated, assumed, personalized expectations.
7 – Assumption of ownership
“I’m assuming that you are just explaining this to me out of full disclosure, but that you will actually be the one doing it because you’re the one giving the speech.”
The Risk? What this individual has heard, is that you are in charge of this entire process. They expect to be managed rather than a willing and active team participant exercising initiative. They expect that you will be the one both watching to see if a ball is dropped and catching it.
And the list goes on…
If you are the type of individual who always believes that silence and/or head nodding means #1, your professional life will prove to be a frustrating one. Do not attempt to interpret the meaning of silence – you will fail miserably and it will only serve to dismantle trust and foster antagonism.
Do not place the burden of silence on the client. When you hear silence, flush out misunderstandings with empathetic, engaged, courteous dialogue. When you see a look of mild puzzlement on a clients face – ask questions and try another angle. It means that at least one thing you have presented did not click with them.
The responsibility is on you to facilitate a solid understanding with your audience not for them to simply participate as spectators of your speech.
Silence is a red flag. Know how to spot it and use it to create a positive client experience.
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