Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say

The art of making someone feel they have truly been heard

How My Mother’s Words Guide Me Even Today

The title of this blog is something my Mother would say to me when I had followed her instructions to the letter and yet didn’t do what she really wanted because she had misspoken in the heat of the moment. I think all of us can imagine the scene. A busy mom juggling many tasks and parenting multiple kids says to one of them “Go do task X” when she really meant “Task Y”. The child returns after completing “Task X” and she tells them that’s not what I wanted, but the child says that’s exactly what you asked for. To which the exasperated mother exclaims “Listen to What I Mean, Not what I Say”.

For those of you are having a chuckle over this as you think of your own parents or yourself, here’s the thing you should know. That lesson my Mother taught me has been carried with me throughout my career and has served me very well in working with my clients.

You Didn’t Ask for This But I Knew You Needed It

Creating an accurate Statement of Work (SOW) is one of the most challenging and important parts of any client engagement. If done properly it sets the expectations of everyone involved on what will be delivered, by who and how much it will cost. However, it’s still very easy to get into the classic situation where you deliver a complex, tripled decker swing that won’t work when the client really just wanted a simple tire swing.

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To avoid this, it’s really important to listen to what the client is trying to accomplish vs their exact request. I remember a situation where a client asked for an integration between their MarTech platform and their CRM. The exact request was “What would it take to build an interface” between the two systems. That’s a pretty straight forward request and the means of passing leads from a MarTech solutions to a CRM are not anything new. However, I knew they also needed a way to prioritize the volume of leads in order for them to be effectively managed, so I built a lead scoring solution into the estimate.

When I met with the client to review the SOW, I said to her “You didn’t ask for this but I knew you needed it, so I built it into the sizing”. She was grateful because she absolutely needed that as part of the solution, and I earned a lot of trust because I had listened to what she meant and not just what she said.

The System Was Down All Day

Many times, I have been in the position of mediating between end user communities and IT support teams as they have the “The System Was Down” debate. This too is an opportunity to listen to what the client means vs what they have said.

The IT Support team will typically react defensively and point out that the system was up and running and had processed thousands of transactions on the day in question without taking the time to listen to what the end user is trying to say. Typically, what the person is trying to express is that there was some kind of system issue that prevented them from completing the task they needed to accomplish that day. So, from their perspective the system was “Down”.

However, if the IT folks focus on what is said they miss an opportunity to truly hear their client. The best way I have seen to break this logjam of two different worlds is simply to ask the person “What were you trying to accomplish?” That opens the door for understanding at a much deeper level. It not only gives you the ability to help solve your client’s immediate problem but also provides invaluable information about how your product is being used and likely ideas on how to improve its overall usability. But again, you must take the time to listen for what the person means vs what they have said.

To Sum Up

Some of my best business skills were learned at a young age and good listening skills are at the top of the list. Learning to really listen to what you client means can change your relationship from one of an order taker to a trusted partner because your client will know that they have truly been heard.

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