Wednesday, May 19, 2010

R.E.S.P.E.C.T...what it means to me

R.E.S.P.E.C.T…what it means to me

To paraphrase Aretha, my team has a very particular meaning for the word respect. Several meanings in fact.

First, “respect” (in our business) means seeking first to understand, before seeking to be understood.

Often, that simply means listening. It also means asking questions, before jumping in with solutions.

It’s not something that came naturally to me when I started as a consultant in 2003. In fact, I was pretty confident that whatever the problem was, I had a solution, and sometimes before my client had finished their sentence. Funnily enough, seven years later, with way more consulting experience I am often less sure of the communication solution. Ad I spend way less time talking.

My listening skills, however, have improved remarkably with practice.

And thus the solutions I recommend are enriched by a far deeper understanding of what’s really going on for our clients’ businesses – whether that be with respect to their clients, colleagues, investors, media or industry gatekeepers.

In practice as communication consultants that means seeking to understand not only our clients but also our clients’ audiences. And we encourage our clients to also think deeply about what exactly is going in for those audiences before any of us start trying to talk to them.  We talk about “getting inside their skin”.

Data helps but personal experience is essential.

The most sophisticated market research is no match for a frank conversation about what really matters to individual clients.

I’ve recently had some experiences with consultants that caused me to reflect on the whole notion of listening. These consultants have plenty of things to tell me. Some of the wisdom they offer is confronting, some exciting, and almost all they have to say is useful.

But whether or not I use what they have to say has everything to do with whether I feel listened to or not.

In one case, I felt listened to… right up until the point a young guy who hasn’t run his own business or been a communication consultant started to tell me (with absolute certainty) how I should spend my time, and what BlueChip Communication should be doing about strategy, pricing and a few other bits and pieces.

In another case, I’ve had some very constructive conversations with a wiser and more experienced consultant. That person took the time to do their research, get to know more than the superficial facts, and only then engage in a conversation…or at least that’s what it felt like even though it was advice. I felt listened to.

 Which brings me back to respect. 

If, as consultants, we listen well enough, we should be able to pick up the verbal and non-verbal cues from clients. It’s not our job to tell clients what they want to hear. But it is our job to find a way to tell them what (in our best judgment) we think they need to hear.

So in seeking first to understand (to listen well) we can then be of most use to our valued clients.

It’s basic but even the big firms don’t necessarily have it right.

With that, I’m off to continue practicing my listening skills.

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