21st century finance: Listening skills
Continuing our series on the interpersonal skills expected of modern accountants, John Stokdyk explores the art of good listening.
The concept of listening as a key 21st century finance skill may be difficult for many accountants to swallow. But it lies at the heart of the partnering and trusted advisor approaches we hear so much about, where accountants and finance team members are supposed to help businesses prosper rather than merely acting as passive scorekeepers.
Historically, some accountants have forged their reputations in difficult times by knowing how and where to cut costs and wielding the sharpest scalpel in the company. But going too far in that direction and rejecting any proposal that might cost the company money could mean it misses out on valuable commercial opportunities. This article advocates a different approach to management by spreadsheet.
Why listening matters
Accounts and numeric data allow a good accountant to “listen” to the underlying hum of commercial trends, but this guide focuses on the inter-personal aspects of listening.
Many finance managers and accounting partners would argue that they didn’t get to where they are today without being good listeners. But like any skill, listening can be learned and improved through conscious effort and practice. Taking the time to think about your own listening capabilities and creating situations where people are comfortable sharing their opinions will always bear fruit.
Listening is a powerful form of data collection. People will respond better and offer better information if they can see that you are keen to listen and value their ideas. Here are some suggestions to get you started, with links at the end to more listening resources.
Seven steps to better listening
- The essence of good listening is simple: ask good questions and listen to the answers. In business settings, the person who knows most about the job is the person who does it. So it makes sense to find out what they think. A good accountant or finance manager should be comfortable going up to people and asking about their work or business. The knowledge they gain this way should be retained and referenced the next time they talk to that person.
- Pay attention to how the conversation is going as well as what is being said. Don’t just listen to the conversation in your head about what has been said and how you are going to react to it. Instead, let go of your ego enough to follow the flow and identify where the information is coming from. Can you tell if someone is hogging the conversation, or holding back? Perhaps a good question could alter the pattern at such points.
- Non-verbal signals and behaviour are important too: maintain good eye contact, and keep your body language relaxed, but alert. If this point is difficult to grasp, start by making sure you’re not staring at your lap or fiddling with your mobile phone. Leaning your head slightly to one side and nodding occasionally as a sign of encouragement can help.
- Learn the value of silence - and above all don’t interrupt people when they’re talking.
- Summarise and reflect what you hear: occasionally the conversation will dry up or a talker loses their thread. This is a good time to briefly paraphrase what you have heard - not parrot fashion, but in a “did I get that right?” tone of voice. Not only does this help you check that you have understood correctly and retained what you were told, it confirms to the talker that you’ve been paying attention.
- Create a positive, relaxed listening environment. Have a reason for the conversation and be committed to achieving a good collaboration. Turn off all mobile phones and concentrate on the people in the room. For more wide-ranging, work-related discussions, visual aids such as flip chart, mind maps, or collections of Post-It notes stuck to a grid can open up new ways of seeing a problem. They also let you keep a record of what was said. If you are not in such a structured environment, taking basic notes and recording action points will reinforce what you have discussed and learned.
- Suspend judgement. Leaping to conclusions is one of the most basic human characteristics and a frequent source of frustrating verbal interruptions. Learn to resist this urge. The most productive exchanges will take place where the people talking are able to relax their grip on certainty long enough to explore their mutual understanding of a situation. The underlying meanings and solutions are more likely to emerge when reviewing the information - either by summing up the conversation, or in the notes taken.
The art of asking good questions
The topic of asking good questions deserves a section to itself - and goes all the way back to the roots of Western thought in the classical philosophy and methods of Socrates.
Listening is a data-gathering rather than action-based process. But the process of formulating questions to identify the information that needs to be gathered can throw new light on the topic being discussed.
When holding a meeting to discuss on a particular issue, don’t start by assuming that you personally need to come up with the answer after taking a sample of opinions around the table. Instead, pose questions that focus on the problem, not the solution. Defining the issue collectively through dialogue will elicit more information and could highlight underlying assumptions that are contributing to the situation.
Consultants, lawyers, journalists and interviewers frequently talk about the difference between closed questions that can be answered with just a yes or no, and open questions that encourage the talker to offer more information.
It may not be appropriate to ask a divisional manager, “How do you feel?” after highlighting declining margins on their sales in the previous quarter, but the Today Programme’s staple of “What do you make of it?” or “How would you explain…?” are useful starter questions in business situations.
As you begin to explore the issue - for example shifting buying patterns among regular customers - you can pick up one aspect of the answer and ask a follow-up question to surface more detail about the factors that might be at play.
Walk the talk
Timing, consistency and sincerity are important elements of good listening.
One of the action points suggested summarising the talker’s points - but this demands good judgement from the listener. If you speak too soon, they could go back into their shell. If you stay silent for too long, they may start to think you’re not really listening. And if you reflect back the things they say by repeating the same phrases too regularly, that could become counterproductive too.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for dispassionate accountants to grasp about listening is that it involves feelings and emotions. These are present in any human interaction, and can draw on deeply rooted beliefs, so it’s important to be aware of them. It may be necessary to talk about these feelings to understand their impact, and to be aware that they are unlikely to be swayed by rational argument.
Rather than avoiding these emotions, acknowledge them and respond with your own feelings. As a listener, you should be interested in getting a first-hand account of the situation. Being honest and speaking from your own personal perspective makes it easier for others to open up. Good listening is not about point-scoring and laying blame, it should aim to uncover information that leads to new insights.
The worst thing you can do is to deploy your newly enhanced listening techniques to draw information out of people, but then go back to being remote, inattentive and judgemental. Having built up expectations of an open and honest dialogue, an insincere listener will end stir up cynicism instead, and only hear the things that people think they want to hear.
Those who master constructive questioning and empathetic listening can go a long way to helping others define their own problems and take responsibility for the solutions.
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