Active listening is the art of fully engaging while listening to another person talk. It’s a skill that helps clients feel validated and ensures you fully understand the situation being discussed — which can help you connect better with clients and even prevent mistakes. While listening sounds easy, in reality, we could all probably improve in this area. One place to turn to guidance is the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey.
The fifth habit from Covey’s classic is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is the foundation of active listening. But what does this look like in practice?
The heart of active listening is, well, listening. In this context, however, we go above and beyond normal conversational listening. Active listening means listening with full focus. It means not formulating what you are going to say next while the other person is talking. If your attention strays, it can be helpful to say in your head something like, “Attention on your client.”
When listening at this level, you are trying to make sure you are on the same page as the client. Asking questions is a great way to build consensus. This may mean simply asking for clarification on a specific point. Or it may mean exploring a bit by using open-ended questions such as, “Can you talk about that a little more?” or “What do you think about this?”
Listen carefully to what the client says. When they have finished, summarize what you’ve just heard right back to them. Something like, “It sounds like you’re concerned about life insurance options. Is that something you’d like to talk more about?” is a good template for what to say.
If you’ve been in the profession awhile, you may think you know how to solve your client’s problem right away. And you might be right. However, if you barrel over your client’s thoughts and feelings, they may feel disrespected.
Regardless of whether your first instinct is right, withholding judgment until later in the conversation builds rapport and deepens your understanding of the client’s needs.
What to avoid
Don’t interrupt the client. This can make your client feel disrespected. Also, avoid distractions like your phone or email. Put your phone on “do not disturb” mode until your meeting has concluded.
Try not to “one-up” the client, by inserting a story unnaturally into the conversation that demonstrates how you “did it better” or “had it worse.”
Try to make eye contact as much as possible without entering into a staring contest. When meeting virtually, this translates into looking into your computer’s web camera, and not the client’s face on the screen.
Solving their problems
Once you’ve taken a deep dive into the client’s issues, then you can start to shift to solving the problem at hand (if that’s what the client really wants, sometimes people just want to vent!).
This is where you shift into the second half of the fifth habit and “seek to be understood.”
You can start this transition by talking about similar experiences you’ve had. Then you can lay out options for possible solutions. It’s important not to boss the client around at this point. Present the options, and then let them make an informed decision.
A practice for life
Like all skills, active listening requires practice to master. But it’s well worth the effort to reach new depths in your relationships with clients.
Here’s a bonus practice: Watch interviews on TV and notice when the host is doing a good job of active listening versus when they are simply waiting to say their next line. Late-night talk show hosts are particularly good at active listening. It’s a fun way to hone your listening skills while relaxing.
Looking for books that will help you continuously improve? View MDRT’s YouTube playlist of Books with Impact.
Find more MDRT member-exclusive ideas to improve listening skills:
- Why female clients think you’re not listening — Watch some easy tips from a Top of the Table member to help your female clients feel heard.
- Be a better listener to engage your employees — In this brief article, learn how to build trust and rapport, resolve more conflicts and connect better with your team.
- Secrets of great listening — In this MDRT Annual Meeting presentation, communications expert Julian Treasure shares the for C’s of effective, conscious listening.