The Forgotten Art of Listening

An author from the Maine Midcoast area sat down with me for the first time to discuss her website. She was punctual to our meeting at the local café in Bath and I had found a table in an empty room where we could talk undisturbed. I listened to her thoughts on what the website would look like, what it might do, and heard her interest pique about what other things might be possible. I wanted to know more.

“How many books have you written?” I asked a few questions about her and her work, the kinds of things she respects, her interests, and her direction for the future. This is usually called an “intake interview” in the business world. People share their ideas, and then the interviewer takes over the conversation and sets appropriate expectations about what can and cannot be done. Truly listening, is more complicated than filling out a form. It involves flexibility during the conversation so that even if you want to talk about the benefits of something like social media, it only comes after in-depth knowledge of the business and the client.

Tips for listening well

Let people talk. One of the biggest rookie mistakes that a website professional can make is to move too quickly to the next question, as though the meeting format was “just a formality.”

Take notes. The meeting can be a goldmine of opportunity or a tragic series of missed cues depending on how well the ideas are preserved. Not all aspects of content for the website will be apparent in the beginning, so taking thorough notes can save a lot of time later in the creative process.

Do not steer the conversation unless absolutely necessary. The best information comes after the person has recited the list of things on their mind that they know they need to say to you. When that burden has lifted, underlying thoughts about the subject float to the surface and more casual conversation can bring forth a clearer and more heartfelt vision of what the client really wants.

Let go of your expectations. If you are waiting for the magic moment when the client is going to say something you want them to say to “seal the deal” or reaffirm your expertise, this comes across as unexplained uneasiness and the client will see that you are waiting for something to happen. This can completely destroy an otherwise helpful meeting because the client does not know what you are waiting for and makes up all kinds of thing in his or her mind to try to explain it, including “am I taking up too much of their time.” This leads directly to the next tip.

Allow enough time to listen. A new client meeting especially should not happen in a short time slot. I am a firm believer in the concept that in order for something to come into your life, you need to make space for it. The same is true for a new client. Make space, try not to box yourself into a restricted schedule that will make both of you uncomfortable.

And finally, respect opinions. This is harder than it sounds because we all have differences of opinions. The adage that the client is always right is a good place to start, but may not handle all situations. Discover the soft opinions and the firm opinions about what the client wants. This can be anything from the colors used on the site, to responsive design options, to social media integration. There are many ways to do this effectively while respecting the client’s comfort zone. I have some clients who prefer to simplify things by leaving out aspects of social media entirely. Other businesses choose to have streaming content hosted by a different company, even though I offer complete hosting solutions. Making sure the client’s needs are respected is a primary element of good listening.

At the end of the meeting my new author client was already feeling like a new good friend. She was pleased I had taken the time to get to know her business and something about her life in order to better represent the style, message, and tone she expected in a website. Since the time we completed her site she still has great ideas for new content and media to add, which we are working on at her pace and within what she decided on for a budget.

Henry Lyons is the owner of Finestkind Web Design in Dresden, Maine. He can be reached at finestkindwd@gmail.com, or through his website www.fineskindwebdesign.com.

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