Imagine your brain is a bucket. Now, imagine you have a meeting with a new client you're pretty excited about working with. Naturally, you’d research the company thoroughly. Who are the competitors? What does their current branding look like? Do they have any previous annual reports you can get hold of? It makes sense to gather this information so you can be prepared as possible for that first engagement. What we are doing is starting to fill up our ‘brain bucket’. With the best intentions this research and learning is starting to fill our bucket with preconceived ideas, assumptions and creating bias - whether we want to or not.
We go to this meeting with a ‘brain bucket’ that is already filled with what we think will impress the client. In reality, we are never going to know as much about the client as they know about themselves. The information we have collected in our brain bucket now acts as a barrier to objectively collecting new information from the engagement. When you think you already know the answer, it’s hard to hear someone else's response, especially if it doesn’t match your own.
Now imagine we have that same meeting but we don’t fill our brain bucket - at all. You arrive empty and ready to learn. There is this overwhelming desire to be seen as ‘smart’ by the client so we are more likely to agree with a statement we might not totally understand or worse still - we hear the words and assume they mean the same thing to the other person. Having an empty bucket lets us surrender to the process. We need to be present and listening for clues that help us truly understand what the client is trying to achieve.
It's not easy going into a big meeting with an empty bucket. You have to not think about landing the job, the money you’ll make, the future clients you might get if this goes well… The ‘future self’ ideals fill up our bucket as well. The worst thing about the ‘future self’ additions is that they almost always come across poorly for us - if you're worried about money and the client says they are concerned about the budget, you might immediately say you can drop the price if you need to. This will come across as desperate and will start to affect what the client thinks about you. Expectations of what the outcome is going to be will ultimately erode your confidence and ability to be present.
Luckily all it takes is practice and a notebook. When a client is explaining the vision they might have for the business, take notes. You're looking for clues, words that might stand out and require more investigation. Don’t assume that you both have the same understanding of what's being said. Ask questions when you don’t understand - Why do you think that? What do you mean by that? You’ll start to see patterns with the words and ideas that are being expressed. This will help you get to the core of what's required. Thinking is hard and it's unfair to think the client is going to know exactly what is needed.
‘Holding the line’ is another technique used to create space in the conversation. Is so easy to get excited and start to answer before the other person has finished talking. We need to stop and give people space, be quiet when someone is finished, let their words sit in the conversation. Only talk if it's an improvement on the silence. This gives people a chance to process what has been said. If you have something to say while someone is talking, write it down. You have a notebook. Use it. You can go back to it and it shows the client that you are really listening to them and what they are saying is important.
So next meeting you have GO IN EMPTY. Take a deep breath, be present and connect with the human being in front of you.