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Every morning, as I remind my young son it’s time to go, I can hear the sound of my voice getting louder and louder. Conventional wisdom (i.e., that of my parents) holds that if I yell louder and ever more insistently he will hear me. But it doesn’t exactly work that way. I am continually impressed at how skillfully and innocently he can tune out even my most urgent voice. He might indeed hear me, but he’s not listening. He takes great pleasure in quoting a movie he saw recently where an exasperated father said, “I am a parent therefore I am an idiot.” I am afraid there are too many times I have to agree with him, and yelling is one of those times.

In most business settings, you’re not going to yell, but you want very much to be heard. If you’re like most people, you really want people to listen to you. It’s important to you and your effectiveness as a professional. It may sound backwards, but in a business development context, if you “listen to be heard,” you will be.

The process of building a book of business involves a range of strategies and activities. From seminars to newsletters to writing articles, no matter what the marketing mix, getting and keeping clients is ultimately based on developing relationships. In my 20+ years of experience in this field, I have found that the lawyers who are the most successful business developers are also the best listeners.

We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we hear more and speak less. ~ Diogenes

Power and Magic
Most lawyers would love to find a magic marketing formula: The secret recipe that miraculously brings new clients in the door. Unfortunately, like mowing the lawn on a hot summer day, it’s hard work and somebody’s got to do it. As much as you might wish for it, you can’t take a nap and wake up to find a pixie did it for you. There’s no magic marketing formula either, but when you learn to listen well, there’s magic in how positively it will impact your business relationships.

Never miss a good chance to shut up. ~ Will Rogers

There is a general misconception that if you aren’t talking you aren’t convincing someone to hire you. We believe there is power in speaking and that the person speaking is the one controlling the conversation and flow of communication. In other words, many people believe that selling is talking. It takes a shift in thinking to understand that asking good questions and listening well are more powerful than talking. It puts you in a position to learn what clients are thinking and clients will make a decision to hire you based more on what they’re thinking than on what you’re saying.

There’s no doubt about it, questions persuade more powerfully than any other form of verbal behavior. ~ Neil Rackham

And you can’t ask good questions if you’re not listening. People who concentrate on being active listeners are interested, relevant, attentive and responsive. They are curious and patient, and stay focused on the conversation. They try to understand things from the other person’s point of view and show empathy for their situation; they show they care with their on-the-mark questions. People will tune out someone who interrupts, is easily distracted and dominates the conversation. The dangers of being a poor listener are that you will be perceived as being self-centered, impatient and uncaring.

Keys to Effective Listening
What does it take to change listening habits? The first step is a little enthusiasm about the positive impact active listening can have. It’s motivating to improve a skill that can so easily and effectively improve your personal and professional relationships. Next, you’ll need to learn good listening behaviors to replace passive or poor listening habits. And lastly, as with any new skill from golf to playing guitar, practice is essential to making lasting improvements.

Few professionals have thought about learning how to become a good listener. Yet, a key tool of business development and building strong, lasting business relationships is the ability to listen well. Use the following suggestions to improve your listening skills:

  • Limit your own talking.
  • Think like the person to whom you’re listening.
  • Ask good questions, prepare some ahead of time.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Concentrate, focus on the other person.
  • Take notes.
  • Learn to read emotions and perceptions.
  • Tune into nonverbal cues.
  • Listen for ideas, not just words.
  • Listen to what people aren’t saying.
  • React to ideas, not the person.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions.
  • We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ~ Aristotle

We all want very much to be heard. It makes us feel valued and important. If you want to be heard, talking more (or louder) won’t help. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” If you listen to be heard as a part of building business relationships, you will be heard and your business development efforts will be more successful, more often.

Originally Published in Minnesota Lawyer.

Business Development Coach Joan Autrey helps lawyers strategically build thriving practices. For details, contact Joan.