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by Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®; and Ted Klontz, Ph.D.

Relationships fail when communication breaks down. Mounting evidence confirms what we intuitively know—we are hardwired to seek connection with others. In order to feel connected, we must be able to communicate effectively. Exquisite listening focuses on the most important aspect of communication: listening. For most of us, the listening component of our communication process is often misunderstood and poorly developed. Although we are well practiced with regard to communicating to clients about who we are, our credentials, and our services, few of us take time to practice what matters most; our ability to listen to others.

Ironically, our listening abilities are compromised and unpracticed where it matters most. It is most difficult for us to listen to the people whom we hold dearest in our lives—our partners, spouses, and/or children.

Are You a Skilled Listener?

Poor listening skills are ubiquitous. Almost no one listens. Few of us truly hear what someone else is saying. For the most part, we operate in a cognitive bubble wherein we have a constant inner dialogue that takes priority over what others are doing or saying. We never fully outgrow our adolescent self-obsession, where our primary worry is about how others think about us. The irony is that, for the most part, they think nothing of us, because their primary worry is how the world sees them. As such, instead of being present for another person, our default is to be much more concerned about getting our own message across to others and our own attempts to be heard.

Whether it is a spouse or a close friend, we rarely take the time to listen to what someone else is saying. As such, so many of us end up feeling lonely, misunderstood, and unsupported. And therein lies the opportunity. When we encounter a skilled and fully committed listener, it is a unique and often profound experience. Financial planners who are skilled listeners never need to worry about losing clients. These planners are much too valuable to the client and could never be replaced by another planner or a robo-adviser.

Now, we know what you are thinking. You are different. You are a good listener. Your clients like you. You listen when they talk. You don’t interrupt. You maintain good eye contact, nod your head, say “uh huh,” and listen reflectively, checking in with your clients frequently to see that you are capturing their intent. You ask the right questions.

But how often are we truly listening? Instead of being present for our clients, we are too often immersed in our own agenda. We are waiting for our client to stop talking so we can move the meeting forward, we are formulating our next response, focused on closing the business, getting the client to take some specific action, thinking about our next meeting, or we are worried about being late for dinner. For most of our client interactions, instead of dedicating our time to listening, we are focused on our own goals and agendas.

Exquisite Listening

The Latin origins of the word “exquisite” mean “to seek” and “search out thoroughly.” With exquisite listening, the listener becomes consumed by the listening process. He shuts out all distractions and has a laser-like focus on what the speaker is saying with a deep curiosity about the feelings, values, goals, and internal conflicts the client is trying to convey.

The exquisite listener enters a trance-like state, deeply immersed in the present moment. There is an intense curiosity on not only what the listener is saying, but the deeper truths and meanings behind the spoken words. The listener’s only goal in that moment is to understand, as fully as possible, the speaker’s subjective reality.

The exquisite listener will frequently seek clarification and expansion, drawing the speaker deeper and deeper into his or her subjective experience. In this way, listening facilitates a process of discovery for the client. As we seek confirmation that we are hearing and understanding accurately, the speaker has the opportunity to correct and clarify. Providing this opportunity for clients is a novel and transformative experience. It is the deepest form of respect and affirmation. For many, it is the first time they have ever felt truly heard. When you give a client this experience, client retention and satisfaction are just natural, effortless side effects.

Some of our most profound moments with clients happen in sessions in which we are listening exquisitely. When we are focused on listening, it is not uncommon for clients to express amazement at how much ground they covered and the depth of their transformation. Sometimes they will compliment us on our excellent therapy or consulting skills. “That was incredible,” they will say, “I am not sure how you did that!”

The secret is this: when we are doing our best work, we are bringing little or nothing new to the exchange. We are asking no questions. We are offering no advice. We are making no recommendations. We are providing no analysis or insights. We are abandoning our goals and agendas and are just bringing ourselves. Sure, we are facilitating a process, but we have learned that our effectiveness grows as our ability to be present grows. In our best moments, we are engaged in exquisite listening, which is the best therapy.

Change the Way You Ask Questions

In our Exquisite Listening™ workshops and trainings, one of the methods we teach is the “flow process,” a seven-step protocol designed to facilitate listening. When we are doing it correctly we ask very few, if any, questions. Although we are often told it is important to ask the right questions, research has found that the mere act of asking a question, regardless of the question asked, has a negative impact on a client (see the 2012 book Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change, third edition by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick).

Instead of asking questions for clarification, it is much more effective to use statements that invite the speaker to say more. Our normal response to clarify a client’s disclosure might be, “What did you mean by X?” While at first blush this might seem okay, research has shown that sentences that end in a question mark increase a client’s level of stress and can actually shut a client down. Questions can make us feel like we are back in school, where the teacher is looking for us to give the “correct” answer. Given the tremendous amount of stress and anxiety the average American has around money, financial questions can be even more threatening. A simple workaround is avoiding requests for more information that end with a question mark. More effective prompts include statements such as:

  • “Tell me more about X.”
  • “I am curious about X.”
  • “I would like to know more about X.”
  • “Say more about X.”

The Flow Process

The “flow process” was designed to help us become better listeners. It is a protocol we use to help cue us when to talk and what to say when we are focusing on listening exquisitely. Here are the seven steps of the process:

1. Start the conversation with an invitation. This could include something like: “I have some items I would like to cover in our meeting today, but before we start on my agenda, I am curious about what concerns you most today.”

2. Listen intently. Put aside your agenda. In fact, it might help to physically put to the side whatever papers or reports you have on your end. This can serve as a cue to you and to the client that you are shifting gears and you are fully attuned to what concerns the client most. Reinforce your client’s disclosures with appropriate eye-contact, nods of the head, and verbal prompts, such as “uh huh,” or “yes.”

3. Summarize what you heard. When it seems that your client’s energy drops, summarize. This energy drop from the speaker is normal and expected. Sometimes it involves a lowering of their voice as the sentence trails off or an expectant pause. Rather than being the end of the conversation, this pause is often a self-conscious halt on the part of the speaker to make sure he or she is not too off track or is not monopolizing the conversation. When this happens, summarize what you have heard him or her say. Ideally, these summaries are shorter rather than longer. Sometimes, a skilled listener can summarize the client’s disclosures in one or two key words: “So if I understand you correctly, you are most concerned today about your financial security.”

4. Ask if there is anything you have missed. This will usually result in a client’s energy increasing and further disclosures. If their energy ramps up, continue to listen.

5. When the client’s energy drops, repeat Steps 3 and 4. If the client’s energy drops and Steps 3 and 4 fail to produce an increase in energy or the conversation appears to be at a natural conclusion, move on to Step 6.

6. Pick a word, phrase, idea, or concept and invite the speaker to give more information. This might look like: “Tell me more about what financial security means to you.”

7. End with a grand summary. After you have engaged in the flow process and feel like you have sufficiently captured the client’s concerns, summarize what you have heard in three or four sentences. Then check in to see if you missed anything. If the client reports that you have, listen intently, and then summarize what you have heard.

When a client is being listened to in this manner she will feel like she is the most important person in the world; and in that moment, to the listener, she is.

Being heard meets two critical human needs: the need for connection and the need to belong. There is no deeper connection than feeling fully understood, and the sense of the speaker’s belonging and importance to the listener is reinforced in each moment of the exchange.  

Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®, is co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute™, an associate professor of practice at Creighton University Heider College of Business, and a managing principal at OCCAM LLC. He is co-author/editor of several books, including Mind over Money, Facilitating Financial Health, The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge, and Financial Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Ted Klontz, Ph.D., is co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute™, an associate professor of practice at Creighton University Heider College of Business, and is of counsel at Flood, Bumstead, McCready, and McCarthy. He is co-author of several books, including Mind over Money, Facilitating Financial Health, The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge, and Wired for Wealth.

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