The Value of Listening

I’ve mentioned before that few firms train their staff to be consultants; Consulting is just a line of work that many of us fall into. In the environmental consulting field in particular, most of us enter this field because it’s a way to make a living with the degree we earned in college. We start as low-level technical staff – a field biologist, archeologist, a water quality technician, a GIS technician, etc. Over time, we move up the ranks to manage the team we joined. Later, we move up to manage the department or division. Few may move up to manage the firm. In many cases, we move up in our careers by joining another firm or starting our own. Nowhere along the way were we ever really trained to manage, consult, or run a team, department, division, or firm.

Despite the fact that the practice of consulting is a lot more than just project management and accounting, most of the corporate “consulting” training I have been exposed to was focused on the fundamentals of building and tracking projects in the firm’s project management and/or accounting software. Few companies I’ve worked with trained us how to effectively interact with staff and clients – activities that are essential parts of a consulting practice.

In my 20+ years of consulting the best training I received was when I worked for Affiliated Computer Services (ACS, now Xerox) when they supported the City of Riverside’s Information Technology department. The ACS project management training was based on a program by Zweig-White that, along with typical project management fundamentals, included role-playing scenarios in which we were tasked to resolve issues with disgruntled employees and clients). It was my first project management training that set a high bar no other project management training I have since received has ever matched.

Learning to Listen

Several years after starting out as an independent consultant I moved to Tucson AZ. It was there that I began collaborating with Howard Ward of TerraSystems Southwest. While working with Howard, I noticed his meeting style was very different than the previous consultants I had collaborated with in Sothern California that influenced the meeting style I had been using thus far. It occurred to me that I been using my meetings with clients (or perspective clients) to talk much more than listen. Reflecting on this changed my perspective on client and staff meetings.

First, when it came to meeting with potential clients, I realized that I was listening just enough to hear keywords or phrases that triggered me to to connect something they just said to past experience with another client just so I could tell them about how I solved that client’s similar problem. This struck me as more of a sales-based conversation rather than one based on developing a deeper, long-term understanding that a good consultant would cultivate and I worried about what details I may have missed while I was talking to a potential client and not listening to them.

Second, I realized that I was entering some conversations with a preconceived idea of what I wanted to say and I was listening for someone to say something that I could respond to with that preconceived idea. Here again, I wasn’t actively listening and I wasn’t picking up the details, nuances, and other parts of the conversation that provided me the whole story. I wasn’t being a good participant in the conversation and I was missing the opportunity for additional insight that would make me a better partner and consultant.

Side Note: I guess that unchecked, this type of listening is more analogous to sales than consulting, where I might have a solution in mind that is looking for a problem to address. This should not be confused with consulting – in which client and consultant participate in a collaborative relationship to solve the client’s particular business issue(s) in which the solution is uniquely developed or implemented to specifically address the client’s issue(s) and not a one size fits all solution.

Software vendors that also offer technology consulting services can encounter ethical issues when sales and consulting are confused. See my University of Redlands, Banta Center for Ethical and Purposeful Leadership paper entitled, “Ethical Considerations for a Vendor/Consultant” for more.

Third, as I continued to work at other consulting firms and more new-career employees, I realized that “talking more than listening” is a phase that new employees (and new consultants) go through just as I did early in my career. I think this happens because new – career employees are eager to demonstrate what they know and are looking for opportunities to interject their knowledge into the discussion. This leads them to talk more than listen until time, confidence, and exposure to other meeting styles align to provide the realization that there’s as much value in not talking as in talking.

Advice for Managers

For managers, practice listening more and talking less. You’ll learn a lot more and gain better relationships with your clients and staff – because you’ll understand them better than the others. Don’t make the mistake of engaging in conversations with preconceived talking points especially if it means you’re only listening for keywords to respond to. It’s a pattern that you can easily fall victim to As you meet with more and more clients and leads about similar issues/needs. I see this pattern pop up all time time with those new to GIS consulting. Since GIS is a broad set of technologies used in so many different industries, there are tons of use-cases of GIS solving problems and conversations about the capabilities of ready-made GIS solutions can be easily triggered by a particular need expressed by a client rather than thinking more broadly about different ways to address their issue.

When managing teams, understand that different team members will be in different phases of the talk/listen spectrum. Newer employees will be talking more to prove their worth while more senior employees may be listening more because they already know their worth . Thus, make sure meetings are structured to allow equal participation. I encountered this problem at a prior firm where our teams had a lot of newer -career employees and , because I was practicing more listening than talking, I found it difficult to find an appropriate time to interject before the meetings were wrapping up .This was compounded when most meetings moved online and the the subtle queues that it was time to move on weren’t as obvious. In this case, pausing meetings to provide opportunities for team members to interject their thoughts would have prevented some of the more eager and/or assertive staff from dominating the discussions. Again, this requires managers to be effectively trained in managing people, which brings us back to how I started this post 😉

What do you think? Does this remind you of any particular situation(s) What advice could you add to that I wrote above Do you find this valuable or not? Please let me know by posting a reply below

Thanks for reading 🙂


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