3 degrees to active listening
The first time I heard the term “Active Listening”, I thought it was one of those paradoxes that had no real explanation. Later, however, I realized it is one of the most important lessons I will implement in my day-to-day work as a business development manager.
If I were asked to define “Active Listening” in one sentence, I would say it is listening to UNDERSTAND rather than to just RESPOND. Sounds good, right? Then how can we make sure we do it?
In this blog, I would like to share with you three techniques that I have learned in the last couple of years, and that I still implement every day. These techniques helped me become a better listener and initiated more collaborations and business opportunities.
Questions, questions, questions
It sounds simple, but if you honestly observe yourself, you’ll realize that in many meetings you speak more and listen less. When we meet with someone with whom we want to discuss a potential collaboration or even sell our product to, we need to get as much information as possible. The first few meetings are basically research, and the best way to do it, is by asking questions. Whenever I meet with a potential customer or partner, I make sure that for majority of the meeting I refrain from speaking aside from asking follow-up questions or prompts that will help me gain more information. For example, when I meet a new consultant and want to discuss potential collaborations as part of my role at 3d Signals, I always start with asking about consulting projects that his/her firm are leading. What are their KPIs and what are they focusing on? At the end of the day – the customer should be our focus. Everything we want to share from our side can wait.
Leading the conversation
“But wait”, you might say, “if we ask questions all the time, how can we lead the conversation towards our goals?”. The answer lies in the question. When you ask questions, you lead the conversation exactly to where you want, while giving the other side the feeling that you are totally focused on them. Although we might go to the media, or to the internet, to research our potential clients, the best and most effective learning can be only be done at the source – by asking our potential clients the questions that interest us, we can get focused answers right from the source, and form a relationship while doing it.
The Hat Theory – find your common ground
My first business development manager role was in a consulting firm that specialized in communication skills. One of the greatest methods I learned there was “The Hat Theory”: when we think about it, each of us wears a lot of hats – “personal hats” and “professional hats”. For example: in the professional level: I am a business development manager and went to law school. In the personal level: I am an Israeli, ultramarathon runner and love flamenco dancing. When we meet someone new, the more “mutual hats” we share with them, the easier it will be for us to ask questions and lead the conversation, because we will have more than one topic to discuss. For example, if I meet someone and realize during the meeting that they were lawyers as well, we could talk a bit about school, our favorite classes, and which field we practiced. Same with hobbies; although those topics do not necessarily relate to the reason we met, they increase our mutual common ground and give the other side the feeling that we are trustworthy, because of our common interest or background.
Looking forward, here are my two cents
Mastering the art of asking the relevant questions and follow up questions during a meeting is a skill you can only develop on the go. The more meetings you have, the more people you meet, the more chances you will have to practice this skill. However, there are few “golden questions” that you can use in every first business development meeting which I have found to be the “life saver questions set”. For example: “what do you like mostly about your work?” and “what is the most exciting project you are working on right now?”. If you have a meeting that is more “sales oriented”, where you have a specific agenda and aim to present your product or service, I would ask: “what is on your plate now?” and “what is your bottle neck that keeps you preoccupied?” While these questions won’t get you all the way there, they are a very good place to start.
The next step? LISTEN. The answers you will get will not only help you come up with your next questions, but will help you shape your message for the person in front of you.