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The Power of Listening

By Ray Sclafani | May 20, 2015

The_UNI recently heard an inspiring story about a former international tax lawyer. David (name changed for privacy) is currently working to build his own independent practice, after spending decades working with a large international accounting firm. I had the pleasure of learning about how he’s found success, which has everything to do with the power of listening. 


Upon leaving his corporate job, David knew that he wanted to continue in some international capacity, while availing himself of the opportunity to do more humanitarian work. So when the prospect of getting more involved with the United Nations came up through his work with the New York City Bar Association, he took it.


He had the opportunity to observe a high-level meeting in which 193 United Nations Ambassadors were trying to come to a single agreement on the rule of law for all UN members. David describes this as a life-changing experience. While all the ambassadors came in with extremely different agendas, they used negotiation, communication, and partnership to find a common ground. He cites their eventual agreement as the moment he realized how powerful listening to these negotiations could be for his practice.


As I heard David’s story, I realized the tactics that he and the ambassadors he observed used are reminiscent of those our ClientWise coaches use when working with financial advisors. These skills help the coaches better understand the individual financial advisor’s situation, business challenges, and opportunities for growth. They can also be very helpful tactics for advisors when partnering with their investor clients. Our coaches model these skills to financial advisor clients for that very reason. Throughout this blog, I will discuss how these skills pertain not only to David’s story, but to coaches and financial advisors as well.


Active listening: David was able to participate in the conversation as an outside observer through active listening. This enabled him to quiet all aspects of his being to truly focus on what was playing in front of him. Through active listening, he became much more in tune with what was happening in the moment, rather than getting ahead of the conversation in his mind. For a coach, this is about fully focusing on the coachee. For financial advisors, it’s about fully focusing on their investor clients without letting their own experiences and agendas get in the way. The ability to truly focus on what is being said and not said takes a lot of practice. Likely, the UN Ambassadors in David’s story were also using this tactic to hear each other’s concerns, goals, values, and beliefs. They listened in order to get complete understanding and find the common ground that would allow them to come to a solution. Financial advisors and coaches are also always looking for this common ground with their respective clients.


Powerful questioning: While David wasn’t a participant in the conversation, I can only assume that the strategies employed by the Ambassadors themselves in conversation relied in part on powerful questioning. This accomplishes what we at ClientWise refer to as “creating movement through curiosity”. At its core, this is a discovery and learning process.  In coaching, powerful questioning means asking questions that: Reflect active listening and an understanding of the client’s perspective; evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action (i.e. challenge the clients assumptions); create greater clarity, possibility or new learning; and move the client towards what they desire. Just like in coaching, the high-level UN negotiation that David witnessed requires careful attention to language and phrasing to keep the conversation productive and moving forward. Time is valuable, and powerful questioning helps make the most of every conversation.


Not having (or setting aside) an agenda: While the ambassadors probably had very clear individual agendas in their minds, I’m guessing that David didn’t walk into the UN meeting with the expectation that he’d come out of it with a better handle on his business. And yet, this is what he walked out with. Sometimes the most powerful observations happen when you aren’t looking. In coaching, it’s all about leaving your own experiences, preconceived notions, and agendas behind. When you actively remove yourself and your personal situation from the experience, you are that much more open to what is occurring and more likely to get something out of it. The same is true for advisors working with investor clients. The progress you make in your partnership with them will increase if you can leave your agenda out of it and work toward one that caters to the client. This will likely improve your client engagement experience and eventually provide some potential new clients through referrals.


Understand the context to the extent that it informs the objective: It would have been impossible for David to understand everything that transpired between the 193 Ambassadors. But he didn’t need to know it all to understand the crux of the conversation. David applied the information he needed to understand the problem at hand, and used that to inform how he now collects information for his business. The same is true in a coaching situation: While some information might be incredibly relevant and crucial to the outcome or objective for the client, some of it will not be. Understanding which information is pertinent to the goal of the coachee or the financial advisor client, can be the difference between a productive coaching or financial planning session, and exchanging information with very little purpose.


Powerful Coaching Questions from this Article:

1. When have you witnessed a conversation in which extraordinary communication was at play and how did it affect your impression of your own communication skills?

2. How do you use these, or similar skills, in your work with investor clients?

3. Is there opportunity to incorporate these skills more with team members, or in approaching a challenging or complex investor client situation?

Topics: Coaching Communication Business Development Client Engagement

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