‘Seek first to understand’: The no. 1 rule in business conversations

As a communication skills coach I often help to prepare people for tricky business conversations in which they need to sell an idea or product,
or negotiate terms, or seek to change entrenched attitudes and behaviours.

Almost always we work with role-play exercises in which these conversational scenarios are played out in a group set-up, followed by feedback, reflection and a chance to improve on the first attempt.

It’s not about point-scoring

A common tactic in these role plays is to follow pre-prepared agendas and seize every opportunity to communicate carefully crafted key messages and proof points to the other side. That approach works fine with media interviews, which are mostly about point-scoring. But it is totally unsuited to the give-and-take of one-to-one conversations, where listening is key to effective persuasion.

What I observe time and time again when facilitating these encounters is that they founder when the protagonist doesn’t take the time to listen to the concerns of the ‘client’ and understand the needs they are purporting to meet.

I watch as the person playing the client grows increasingly frustrated, angry and uncooperative. By the end of the role play the protagonist may have succeeded in articulating his or her messages – but they have fallen on deaf ears.

The wise words of Stephen Covey

Stephen R Covey is a very wise man and if, like me, you are a fan of his best-selling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you will remember that Habit 5 is ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

According to Covey: ‘…most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measure up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person needs before he/she finishes communicating’.

The short-term risk with this approach is that your proposed solution will not meet the real need. The longer-term risk is that you may do irreparable damage to important relationships.

Invest in listening

So next time you are preparing for one of these difficult conversations – whether in your personal or professional life – make it a rule to invest in listening before speaking, investigating before judging and understanding before offering solutions.

You may not succeed in your superficial aim of effecting immediate change. But you will reap the more satisfying rewards that come from building trust.

How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, return to the Home Page.