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Active Listening Techniques To Build Your Book of Business

At Wicker Park Group, we conduct many business development workshops each year and believe strongly in the value of case studies as the best way for attorneys, usually acting in groups, to practice “meeting” with a client prospect for the purpose of developing rapport. Consistently, the experience is eye-opening. In practice, most lawyers spend too much time trolling for work opportunities rather than listening—really listening—to uncover the client prospect’s current pain points (often distinguished from legal needs). Listening demonstrates empathy and the ability to connect emotionally.

The reality that emerges from these case studies is that business development is essentially a buying process, and work is most effectively “sold” through effective listening.

Create meaningful opportunities for your lawyers to practice active listening that builds rapport. Remind them of the Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, that the client speaks for 80% of the time. Also, remind them to use open-ended questions that encourage the clients to respond in their own words. Lastly, teach your lawyers to utilize one or more of the following six active listening techniques:

1. Acknowledge. One of the easiest ways to build rapport is by commenting appreciatively on what others say. Your words can reflect empathy and an alignment of values between you. Examples:

  • “Thank you for sharing your perspective; I wasn’t aware of that information.”
  • “I understand your frustration much better now.”
  • “You must be very proud of how your team performed under the circumstances.”

2. Parrot. Help others articulate their ideas by parroting their exact words in response to a comment. The parrot question needs to be presented in an inquisitive manner to avoid potential defensiveness. Examples:

  • “What do you mean when you say [specific word or phrase]?”
  • “Difficult? Difficult how?”
  • “You’re concerned about it. Tell me more.”

3. Rephrase. Much like the parrot, rephrase what you hear about a point of fact or opinion, but use your own words. Both the parrot and rephrase can be helpful when listening to individuals with different experiences and biases—different generations, gender, geographic or socio-economic backgrounds (which is everyone). Examples:

  • “When you said the problem has been around for a while, I was thinking 12 months. Am I close?”
  • “I’m unfamiliar with what that word [idea, fact]. Perhaps because I am [old/young, man/woman, from a different region, etc.].”

4. Follow up; Push ahead. Like the parrot and rephrase, which seek to clarify ideas, follow-up questions look to extend ideas and opinions. In essence, the active listener is following the other’s train of thought. Examples:

  • “Given those facts, how would you prioritize our options?”
  • “Do you want to include [action, person or option] in the discussion?”
  • “Looking ahead another year, what do you envision?”
  • “On a scale of 1 – 10, where would you place it?”

5. Suggest. Offering new ideas and ways of looking at a situation works well provided the client understands and is comfortable with rejecting the offer. It’s important to be self-sensitive to our own biases. Examples:

  • “Have you considered [option]?”
  • “Hearing you describe the situation, I wonder if [option] might be something to consider?”

6. Summarize. The end game of active listening is to look for areas of agreement and consensus, most importantly next steps, throughout and at the conclusion of the discussion. Examples:

  • “Can we agree at this point that we will [course of action]?”
  • “Let’s assume that we can/have found common ground on this point.”
  • “How about if I take responsibility for [process, additional value] and you [what they want to do, if anything]?”

These techniques work best in combination. They help lawyers manage the process but encourage the client prospect to control the content. Wicker Park Group partner Tara Weintritt says it best when she reminds us: “Be interested, and you will be interesting.”

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