Some time ago I wrote a post about the importance of active listening as a management consulting skill. In this, my latest post, I’ll expand on that with some more specific guidance, focusing on the power of reflection, a key technique in active listening.
What is Reflection?
In an active listening context, reflection involves the use of feedback to demonstrate that you are hearing what your client is saying. By vocally reflecting the key points in what your client is telling you during a meeting, you can show that you understand the speaker’s message and reinforce that understanding in your own mind.
In management consulting, reflection is a valuable active listening skill because it helps to garner clients’ confidence in your abilities. It also provides the opportunity to correct any misunderstanding which might later impact your consultant/client relationship.
Effective Use of Reflection in Management Consulting
There are really two types of reflection technique. One technique is called “mirroring” and involves the repetition of the views expressed by the client if not word-for-word, at least close to it. Personally however, I don’t feel that mirroring is a particularly useful technique to use in management consulting discussions and if overused, can be downright annoying to the speaker.
The technique I do recommend you to try out and practice is paraphrasing, in which you wait for the client to finish what he or she is saying and then use your own words to “reflect” the speaker’s message back to them.
A Paraphrasing Example
As an example of paraphrasing in action, imagine your client has just finished telling you about some of the problems she wants your help to solve.
During the discussion, she says “We just don’t understand what’s causing these inventory count discrepancies. There’s no pattern to them. They can swing wildly up or down, so I’m wondering if it’s an IT issue, perhaps some transactions aren’t producing data or something.”
Now in reflection, you would say something like this:
“The discrepancies are inconsistent … up and down with no pattern, so you think it might be a data entry problem.”
To which the client responds…
“Well, I’m not saying it’s a data entry issue, but something data-related.”
In this example, what you did was to briefly paraphrase what your client told you about the inventory discrepancies. In doing so, you reassured your client that you had understood her, although she clearly felt the need to clarify her thoughts about data as the root cause of the problem.
Reflection Aids Direction in Management Consulting
In our example above, if you hadn’t paraphrased and had let the conversation move on, your later investigations might, (under the impression that your client was concerned about “data entry” as opposed to data more generally) have headed down the wrong path, wasting time and the client’s money.
So as you can see, paraphrasing is a really useful reflection technique for making sure you understand your client’s needs, and of course can be used in any kind of business discussion where the aim is to gather facts and information.
On Reflection, Practice Makes Perfect
It’s not safe to assume that paraphrasing is an easy active listening technique to master, largely because it can feel really awkward in practice—until you get used to doing it.
Before you try it in a real client meeting, ask someone you know to help you work through some fictitious client conversations, using these as a drill to get comfortable using paraphrasing—and as a way to hone your active listening skills in general.