I recently listened to a TED podcast that made me sit up and take notice. It was a video by Celeste Headlee, the host of On Second Thought, a US radio news show in Georgia. As a regular interviewer, Celeste’s TED video was on 10 ways to have a better conversation. They’re all good tips, and I would recommend listening to it, but what struck me was point number 9 – ‘listen with the intent to understand.’

As Celeste quotes in her video, Steven Covey once said, “most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.”  And it is that comment that struck me as to how true it is. The number of business meetings; friendly conversations; passing comments where we’re not really listening. We’re just waiting for our turn to talk. An old boss of mine used to describe conversations as people just taking turns to tell their own story. And whilst that is quite a narcissistic view of things, there’s a lot of truth in it.

The reason Celeste’s talk and Covey’s line struck me so much was that I had recently completed an in-depth interview with a respondent, and it made me realise how the conversations I have during fieldwork are perhaps the most genuine and concentrated I have overall. Thinking back to that interview, I realise I knew more about that person, their personality, their attitudes, their motivations than I did a lot of people who surround my every day; from colleagues to friends. Why? Because I entered the conversation with the intention to understand.

Of course, the interview I conducted wasn’t a natural conversation, I was commissioned to ask them probing questions, and they were incentivised to respond. But more than that I had put aside an hour of my time to speak to this person, shutting off my phone; walking away from emails, and almost literally locking myself in a room just the two of us. And again, it made me think how often did I do that in my day to day – have a conversation with someone without letting email, or social media, or other people interrupt. And how long had that conversation gone for an hour? The answer was not a lot.

Too often we are either distracted by things around us or worse we shut off our brains to what someone is saying focussing instead on replying. On getting our pre-packaged point of view across instead of letting new information shape our opinions and tailor our replies.

Too often I have spoken to clients who say their agencies come in already knowing what methodology, what tool they’re going to use.

In our personal lives this can hold us back from being enriched by others, by absorbing their personal experiences and stories, and getting to know them better. From a business perspective, this can lead to frustration and misalignment in projects. Too often I have spoken to clients who say their agencies come in already knowing what methodology, what tool they’re going to use. Adamant about the approach to take, agencies don’t listen to understand; they listen to reply with pre-packaged solutions. But how can this be accurate if you haven’t taken the time to understand the client and their issues in the first place?

We need to take the time and effort to hold an Immersion session with our clients at the start of a project, going beyond the brief to speak to the stakeholders, area experts and the end users of the findings to understand their background; where the need for research came from; and what they want to be able to do with the results. But most importantly, to seek to understand what they already know. So that the research approach can then be tailored around the client. The last thing we want to be doing is be giving our clients old news, information they already knew. Instead, we want to stand on the shoulders of existing knowledge and find the new news, uncover the next way forward for the client.

Only by understand our clients in detail before we undertake a project can we deliver something tailored to their needs and so more effective and useful because of it. Whilst this sounds simple, easy, obvious almost, rarely does this happen in the world of research. Rather than take the time to understand the client, we focus on talking about ourselves and what we already know.

So for me, Celeste’s TED talk is not only a salutary reminder of the importance of taking the time to truly listen in our personal lives but also how important it is to understand our clients. Because only then can we have a better conversation with them, and ultimately a better business relationship.