It’s all very well getting people talking – but what if they won’t shut up?
If you listen well, people will talk. They’ll open up and reveal all kinds of interesting information. You’ll hear the things they didn’t think to say before, and even help them discover and explore things they didn’t know they knew.
I was speaking recently to an experienced programme manager who described the initial discovery phase of a project or sub-project as opening things up, like opening a series of nested boxes. He likes to challenge and explore each major requirement, to find out what it’s wanted for – because there might be a better way of meeting the real requirements.
It’s in that kind of exploration that the skills I teach are most useful, to discover the customers’ real requirements, including tacit and unconscious requirements. It’s like the old marketing idea that customers don’t want a quarter-inch drill bit, they want a quarter-inch hole.
“But what next?” my friend asked. “What if you get them talking – and they won’t shut up? There are deadlines to meet, deliverables to deliver, and they’re just wittering on about something irrelevant.”
- Acknowledge that you have heard the point the person is making by repeating back their key words exactly. Don’t paraphrase, parrot-phrase! The words people use are important to them and capture their meaning precisely, while a paraphrase will always change the meaning slightly. The speaker may feel the need to keep talking until they are understood: once they feel heard, they’ll stop talking.
- Always make your objectives for a meeting clear at the outset – and give others a genuine opportunity to do the same. You might ask: “What would you like to have happen in this meeting?” Remember to actually listen to the answer! This process might take a few minutes, but it will save time in the long run by revealing (sometimes subtle) differences in priorities which can then be taken into account.
- If someone goes off at what seems to be a tangent, ask: “Is there a relationship between <the thing they are talking about> and <purpose of the meeting>?” Your tone here is crucial – a gentle, curious tone may help to reveal a connection you hadn’t noticed, and which could be very valuable to your project. A sharp tone is likely to silence the most determined chatterbox, instantly – use it sparingly.
There is considerable skill involved in questioning and listening effectively. You need to have the expertise to open things up and close things down. You need to know when to ask more questions about what’s wanted, and when to propose a way forward. You need to be able to direct a person’s attention, with precision, to the issue at hand.
Developing these skills is not a two-minute job, but neither does it have to be the result of years of hands-on experience. Why not start practising now?