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The thing about listening for value is that most of us are already pretty good at listening for value in conversations—as long as it’s our value. But in persuasive business conversations, there are usually two other parties that could potentially benefit: the other person, and the larger purpose.
Value in lean communication is defined as communication that improves outcomes for one or both parties while respecting the relationship. In lean communication, value can be added by one party, or jointly created by both. Listening is crucial either way, but especially so for the joint creation of value. It’s the key to getting the best thinking out of all parties in the conversation, first by allowing you to ask questions that dig deeper into the situation, and second by making it safe for the other person to bring up thoughts they might have kept to themselves. And, by involving the other person in whatever is agreed to, it makes it more likely that they will follow through.
You may recall that one of the tests of lean communication is who did the work. For example, the speaker may dump a mass of details and expect the listener to make sense of it. But lean listening does not care who did the work—just that the work gets done. In a conversation, you should take more than 51% of the responsibility to ensure that value is created, even if it’s you who has to do the work for the other person.
This 51+ rule means that if you are the one presenting the idea, you need to pay close attention to how the idea is being received, and whether you are getting active commitment rather than passive acquiescence; if you’re unsure, don’t hold back from asking questions to ensure the level of agreement you’re getting. If you’re the listener, listen for the question: what do you want me to do and why? If a question is asked, did you or they answer the question?
You can extract more value by taking positive control of the second conversation. If you don’t take control, your second conversation will default to looking for and noting negatives, such as differences between you and the other person, or obstacles that stand in the way of getting what you want. Try to listen actively for intersections of your interests and theirs. If your individual differences seem to be too far apart, listen for a higher purpose that you both can support, such as a specific value or goal of the organization.
Remember that value is defined by the customer, which in lean communication means the person you are speaking with. But the customer is not always right, because what they define as value may not be what is best for them or for the larger purpose. So, besides listening carefully for their view of value, you must always be on the alert for signals that indicate additional chances to add or create value. It’s like driving: your eyes are fixed on the road ahead, but your peripheral vision is alert for signs of unexpected danger.
In conversation, these signs fall into two categories: intentions and obstacles. Intentions are where they want to go, such as their plans, goals, desired future states, and values. Obstacles are elements of the situation that hinder their realization of intentions, and they fall under four general categories: Problems, Opportunities, Changes, and Risks (POCR).
They may not be explicit in these, or even be totally aware of them themselves, so listen carefully for the signs of value; it’s amazing how much extra you can pick up if you’re alert for these. I once videotaped a sales role play in which the “buyer” revealed five potential intentions or obstacles in about thirty seconds. When we reviewed the tape, the seller had missed all five, and the buyer was not even aware of three of them that had come out of his own mouth! But what’s interesting is that when we reviewed the video and looked specifically for signals of value, they popped right out.
All this may seem like a lot to remember, so here are just two questions you should have in mind to help you listen for value:
If you keep these questions involved in your second conversation while listening, you are almost guaranteed to improve outcomes for all parties concerned; and you will definitely respect the relationship at the same time.