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Client Feedback, Service & Teams
3 minute read | 8 years ago

From Sponge to Trampoline: Putting the “Active” in Active Listening

Photo of Kevin McMurdo By: Kevin McMurdo

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Early in my law firm marketing career, I held an in-house position at a Pacific Northwest law firm of approximately 150 lawyers. I was asked to speak at the firm retreat. I shaped my presentation around the basics: Focus on relationships, distinguish yourself through client service and always be responsive.

As I opened the floor to questions, one of the firm’s rainmakers asked, with a touch of bored resignation, “Okay Kevin, you’ve told us to return phone calls. Anything else?”

To the partner, responsiveness meant simply “calling back.” (This was 1988, remember, long before the advent of email and text messaging. Voicemail was cutting-edge communication.)

The “call back,” I reminded the group, is only the first step in demonstrating responsiveness. The more important step is the “responsiveness” reflected in the subsequent conversation. “Are you an effective, active listener?” I asked. The group shared examples of active listening, and together we reached a comfortable consensus. Active listening, we agreed, meant (1) paying attention to the visual aspects of listening such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice, (2) listening with intent and (3) repeating what we heard for clarity and understanding.

Spring ahead to summer 2016.

While the channels for communication have grown exponentially, the significance of listening has never been more important. Client relationships continue to be just that—relationships. Professional services are quite often built on personal relationships, which start with good listening habits.

Knowing of my continued interest in the topic of listening, a friend recently directed me to a Harvard Business Review article.

“What Great Listeners Actually Do” (July 14, 2016) was written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and president respectively at Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. Analyzing data from more than 3,400 participants enrolled in a management development program, the authors identified 20 behaviors and characteristics associated with truly effective listening. They then grouped those behaviors into four main findings:

  1. Listening is much more than remaining attentively silent. Good listeners do more than sit quietly, providing acknowledgment through an occasional nod and “um hum.” They are active participants, creating a “two-way dialogue.”
  2. Good listeners help build a person’s self-esteem. Effective listeners offer support and encouragement, and in the process they try to build a safe environment within which difficult topics may be discussed.
  3. Good listeners are cooperative listeners. Poor listeners, according to the authors, are perceived as competitive—“listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic.” (Sound familiar?) Competitive listeners are looking to win rather than help.
  4. Good listeners offer suggestions. According to the study, people are more receptive to suggestions from someone they believe is a good listener. The challenge is establishing the right balance of timing, encouragement, pushback and, well, listening.

The authors describe various levels of listening behavior as well. Their conclusions are clear, however. Good listeners do much more than pay attention, absorb the information they hear and repeat it back “sometimes word for word.” They predict that the commonly held view of a good listener as a “sponge” is being replaced by the notion of listener as “trampoline,” giving “energy, acceleration, height and amplification” to the other party much like a trampoline acts on kids.

In my work with lawyers and law firms teaching business development skills and strategies, I plan to incorporate the conclusions of the Zenger/Folkman study into my listening exercises. I encourage all of you to do the same.