How Freelancers Can Use Active Listening to Improve Business

Imagine we’re having a conversation, and I’m telling you about where I live. I might describe how Eagleby is located between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and mention the names of important roads. I might explain that Eagleby is situated between twin rivers, and the bird life in our wetlands—including eagles—attracts bird watchers from around the world. I might also mention that the reputation of some parts of Eagleby is summed up by the name given it by the locals: “Illegalby”.

This article originally appeared on FreelanceSwitch, and is no longer available online. A version of the original article has been saved on the Internet Archive.

While I was talking, most likely you were only half-listening. Perhaps you were also thinking about lunch, organizing three things you need to get done this afternoon, daydreaming about how cool you think eagles are, evaluating some ideas for a new website, and wishing I would change the subject.

Now imagine that the context of the conversation was that you were about to drive to Eagleby to meet with me about an important job. You would have listened in an entirely different way. And that’s the difference between passive and active listening. In this article we’ll look at why active listening is an essential skill for freelancers.

What is Active Listening?

First we need to understand active listening a little better. What exactly is active listening? Steve Martin defines it like this:

Active listening is to make a conscious effort to hear and understand what others involved in a conversation [are saying]. In active listening, also sometimes known as empathetic listening, the listener paraphrases what the speaker has said and seeks confirmation that their understanding is correct.

It takes time to learn to listen like that. Here are four techniques that may help:

1. Learn to Hear the Non-verbals. Only 35% of communication is verbal. If you are only listening to words, you miss 65% of the message. Body language, facial expression and tone and rate of speech add to the message being conveyed.

2. Offer Feedback. Feedback lets the speaker know they are being heard. Giving feedback isn’t offering your own point of view, it is checking that you have understood the speaker’s point of view by rephrasing it. For example, “Fred, I hear you saying that you’re concerned I might miss the deadline.” Or, “It sounds like you’re not totally happy with the new design.”

3. The ‘What’ Technique. This technique involves asking questions that start with the word ‘what’. Some examples are:

  • What do you want?
  • What can I do for you?
  • What were you hoping for?
  • What do you see as possible?
  • What is the context of that concern?

David Flack explains the benefit of using ‘what’ questions: “Such questions reveal that the listener is open to any response. The listener has no agenda. He can then be surprised, informed or delighted—even outraged—by the speaker’s agenda.”

4. Don’t Give Advice Too Early. And never interrupt someone to give advice. It gives your client the message that you’re not interested in their point of view. And even if you think you know the right answer before you hear the whole question—after all, you’re a professional—you might be wrong. Or you may need to adjust your answer once you hear all the facts.

The World Needs More Listeners

We live in a fast-paced world. We lead busier and fuller lives than previous generations, try to fit more into our day, are more easily distracted, and are often trying to organize two or three things in the back of our minds. We have less time to listen.

And when we do listen, we multitask. We plan what to say next, or are distracted by unrelated issues. This isn’t healthy. We’re not giving the speaker our full attention, and they notice. And because we only remember 25-50% of what we hear, we’re missing out as well.

Some have identified one of the greatest psychological needs of our time is to be listened to. Active listening helps to address this need. It is a skill that must be learned—and people will notice when we do.

The Business Benefits of Active Listening

Active listening has proven very effective in counseling and conflict management, but it is also a very effective business tool:

  • It helps you clarify issues early. With active listening you are more likely to pick up on a different point of view or some misconceptions your client has. By hearing them, clarifying them, and offering some ‘what’ questions, you can stay on track and better a more satisfactory solution.
  • It helps you catch new opportunities. If you’re really listening to the needs of your client, you may pick up on specific needs they have that you can help them with.
  • It improves long-term client relationships.  Chase Sagum explains: “Listening will set the tone for the rest of your communication. It will direct your efforts. By actively listening to clients, you’ll know the best way to communicate with them. Whether through email or phone, listening skills will foster the next steps in client relations. This can not only help businesses fine-tune their sales and implementation techniques but it will also help to create a long term client relationship, increasing visibility, referrals and market share.”

Where Can I Learn More?

Active listening sounds so easy, but it’s difficult to master. If you’d like to learn more, check out these detailed articles:

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