Listen Up

We recently had an amazing client meeting. It ran for more than 2 hours, and in that time, we the BarnRaisers, collectively, spoke for maybe 20 minutes. That’s right. The rest was filled with the client. And it was amazing.

Over the course of the meeting, the client shared their successes and opportunities. They told us about current and forthcoming organizational shifts. They shared their visions and concerns. And we listened.

That’s the number one thing we do at BarnRaising Associates. Listen. We know it’s a great client meeting when we spend no more than 10% of the time talking. In fact, at a minimum, our goal is to be listening no less than 80% of the time. Why? Because it’s only by listening that we’re able to understand our client’s pressure points and opportunities for growth. By really listening we hear not only what is said, but take note of all that is left unsaid too.

Listening gives us insights into organizational culture and team beliefs – all key components of building a strong brand and leveraging brand equity. How? We pay attention to who around the table is doing the talking. How other members of our client’s team are responding to comments. When are they leaning in? When are they disengaging? So yes, we’re listening to their words, but also to their body language.

Beyond all of this, we’re also listening to the silences. We’re taking note of what questions our clients aren’t asking. And, perhaps most importantly, what questions they don’t have the answers too.

Because we build trust and establish space for clients to share openly, we are able to identify concerns and opportunities they may not have recognized or identified themselves. By paying attention to the unasked questions, we’re able to develop effective strategies (marketing, communications, leadership, sales or other) that don’t just address what our clients want, but also what they need.

It’s amazing how overlooked the simple skill of listening is. Harvard Business Review shared findings from some listening studies. There are many great insights in the article, but some key takeaways include:

  • People feel judged when given feedback, but are motivated when given the opportunity to share
  • People share more readily when they are paired with good listeners
  • Good listeners enable speakers to see all sides of a situation

As consultants, our number one job is to listen. But, it’s an often overlooked skill that anyone can, and should, practice. So, how can you become a great listener?

  1. Be present. Leave your cell phone in a desk drawer. Look the speaker in their eyes. Let them know that you are there. Take time and really connect with your speaker.
  2. Be engaged in the conversation. Actively listening isn’t sitting in stone silence. Lean in, nod your head or provide other subtle cues (“mm-hmm”, “yes”, or “go on”) to let the speaker know you’re still with them. This builds trust and affirms your speaker’s self-esteem. Back in 2016, the Harvard Business Review shared another article about good listeners – and what they do. In it, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman share that “good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”
  3. Ask open-ended questions to encourage your speaker to share more. Communication is always two-sided, so entering into the conversation by asking probing, insightful questions will show the speaker that you care and allow them to expand on ideas.
  4. Repeat back what you’ve heard, to confirm your understanding. Providing the speaker an opportunity to know if they’ve conveyed what they wanted will help to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  5. Refrain from judgment and knee-jerk problem-solving. Don’t jump to conclusions. These can all lead to interruptions or leave the speaker feel unheard. Instead, keep your mind open and make the space to let what was shared really sink in.

Listening. Really listening. And then working to address and answer not only what’s been shared, but also all that’s been left unsaid is the key to building effective strategies.

So, what is it you’d like to say? Drop us a line – we’d love to listen.

I can’t, I’m very busy

Raise your hand if you’ve heard it – or maybe even said it – before: I’m very busy. Often implied with this statement is “Because I am very busy, I am therefore very important.”

We’re not arguing the truth of this statement. In fact, we’d be prone to agree with it. At work, at home, in life. Each of us is chasing the elusive holy grail of work-life balance (overlooking the fact that it is an ongoing process of balancing). Many of us live and almost idolize the current culture of busy.

In a Psychology Today article, Anna Akbari writes: “Professional life in general (and urban life in particular) is centred on a culture of busyness. But is it out of necessity, or are we addicted to busyness? Does the “I’m so busy!” mantra and chronic unavailability validate us? Does it make us feel more important? Like things are moving forward and we’re winning at life.”

Maybe. But, that’s not actually a good thing.

The Journal of Consumer Research shared a study out of Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown that found “positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.” Wait, what’s that saying? Basically,  we’ve come to equate our worth – the value of our time – with how little of it we have left. That we’re successful not because of the things we have (think mansions, yachts, and vacation homes) but rather only if and when we’re busy.

Forbes published 10 Ways to Buck ‘The Cult of Busy’ Habit for a Better Work Life Balance. In it, author NF Goldston writes that “somehow being busy has become a status symbol.”  Whether around the lunchroom, the water cooler or the kids’ sports field, it is almost as if we are trying to one-up each other for busyness. And for what? What does busyness actually get you?

The cult of busy isn’t new. In 2016, Johns Hopkins Health Review reported that “more than one-third of Americans say they don’t have enough time in their day to get things done. Work hours bleeding into home life and a prevailing belief that we need to do it all and do it well have created a feeling of constant activity.”

Cue BarnRaising Associates founder, Alan Quarry, perking up his ears. If there’s one thing he doesn’t like, it’s the cult of busy. As BarnRaising associates, we’re not rewarded for being busy. That’s not to say we’re doing nothing. Good work is being done. But, that’s because Quarry is pushing us to shift our perceptions.

When he sees associates and clients dipping their toes into the busyness pool, he’s quick to point out that “activity does not equal achievement.” In other words, when we think we’re busy we’re often distracted doing busy work. We’re not actually working on our priorities. There’s an important distinction that’s being made here. Being busy does not equate to being productive. And, at the end of the day, productivity is what matters.

At BarnRaising Associates we don’t have to do lists (can you imagine!), but we do have priority lists. Associates look at our projects and time and then prioritize. We’re not consumed with busyness or focused on busy work. To do lists have a tendency to result in a false sense of accomplishment. We check off all the tiny little non-important things, chat about how busy we are, and leave the day or the week feeling like we have done a lot of stuff. However, by shifting our focus to priorities we are able to achieve our main goal: accelerating impact for our clients. Moving away from being occupied with busy to-dos to staying focused on priorities enables us to deliver what our clients need from us in a (wait for it) timely manner.

That’s right. By focusing on priorities we actually earn time back. How? Urgency and importance. A simple matrix of what’s both urgent and important (versus what’s neither urgent nor important) quickly allows associates (and our clients) to sift through the clutter. In this manner, priorities rise to the top. This process is a key part of working with clients because it encourages them to sift through the stuff, to cut the BS, and to make the sacrifices to get to what’s most important to them, their work, and, ultimately, their clients.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a one-time thing. Projects are, by their nature, dynamic. So looking back at the matrix allows us to continuously stay focused on the most pressing demands. And, there’s another cool thing that results: associates and clients stay focused on areas where they’re skilled.

More often than not, something that isn’t urgent or important to one person may be both urgent and important to another associate or member of the client team. This results in a natural delegation of tasks, where individuals are equipped to take responsibility and accountability for aspects of the bigger project. Can anyone else see the win-win in this?

To be fair, to break the culture of busyness there is one more thing that needs to be done. An honest moment of self-reflection, and the readiness to say no.

At BarnRaising Associates, this works because we only ever take on six clients over the course of a year. Shocking? You bet. In fact, many others in our industry wouldn’t hold back at snickering at us suckers, turning away projects – and profits – for what? Time? (Oh cult of busy – you’re everywhere!) But, we know that being busy won’t serve our clients or our associates. Six clients enables us to remain focused on our number one priority: changing the world. Six clients frees us to be nimble and agile – both of which are important in our line of work. Six clients means we can isolate and meet priorities. That, in the end, impact is accelerated. Which is why we’re here.

We know what we’re good at. We excel at cutting through the clutter and really listening not only to what our clients are saying but also to what they aren’t saying. We don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by the little things and instead dive deep into work that matters. We know that the cult of busy isn’t for us. It doesn’t serve our clients. Which means that while we may not be any less busy than anyone else, we are a whole lot more productive.

Do you feel what I feel?

Design – be it a product, service or business strategy – works when it’s human-centred. When the designers – graphic, product, marketers or managers – take the time to really understand not only the problem or issue from the customers’ perspectives, but also the solutions. Continue reading “Do you feel what I feel?”