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Active listening: a tool to better understand one another

December 21, 2020

Podcast

Active listening is not about you, it’s about the person in front of you. It helps you understand your client, your colleagues and your loved ones. Ask open-ended questions to figure out what’s important to them. The goal is to get at the intent, the emotion and the important facts behind what they’re saying on the surface. Now you’ve got a wider perspective, because you understand not just your side but the other person’s as well. It makes you empathic.


Read transcript

Tanya Macpherson (TM) and Annamaria Testani (AT)

TM:

Hello, welcome to NBI Quick Takes. My name is Tanya Macpherson. I’m the RVP for Central Canada for National Bank Investments. Today I’m pleased to have Annamaria Testani, Senior Vice-President, National Sales for National Bank Investments with us here today. The topic of discussion is going to be active listening.

Annamaria, welcome!

AT:

Thank you, Tanya! Thank you for having me.

TM:

Why don’t you tell us what is actually active listening? What does that mean?

AT:

You know, it’s funny. It’s almost like a buzzword we see in the media but there is an actual true definition of active listening. And listening is not something where you listen just to be able to reply, or you listen to answer someone. Active listening is you are solely focused on your audience as they’re expressing themselves to you. You’re trying not to figure out the letter of the law of what they’re saying, but the intent.

Active listening is the art of understanding what is it your audience is communicating to you, why it’s important to them. As opposed to, many times though, Tanya, I noticed we listen to judge, be able to say, “Oh, you mean this.” And then we interject, or we interrupt. That’s not active listening. Active listening requires a certain level of silence where you’re letting that person express themself and if they’re having difficulty expressing themselves, you don’t kind of sort of take over. What you do is you ask for clarifications. You ask value-added questions that enables your audience to keep going. Right? Like, as they expand on what they’re saying, your goal in all that is to have a much better understanding. “Oh! That is what you meant.”

You know, a lot of times, we listen with the preconceived notion of what let’s say you’re going to say, Tanya. And then, I’ll judge. I’ll go, “No, Tanya, that’s wrong.” That is not active listening. Active listening is pausing, absorbing the information, asking for clarification, asking for more value-added questions, giving yourself another pause, figure out what you meant by it, and then think of your reframe.

TM:

That makes sense. Why do you think this is so important especially today with what’s going on around us, around the world, and how we’re connecting with our clients?

AT:

I think one of the pitfalls or one of the biggest blind spots we’ll often see – you know, call it advice, a channel that has advice – we tend to sometimes assume a repetitive need. So, I will assume Tanya is worried about COVID. A lot of times, I’ll start my conversation, if I’m an advisor, I might be actually dumping an enormous amount of details to you, but I haven<t figured out what<s really important to you.

What happens is we have a script. We follow that script, that it’s client Tanya, or it could be John, Jane, anybody. Your script, unfortunately, becomes repetitive. But nowhere in there am I trying to figure out what’s top of mind to you. It’s not even something you might even know. I might need to kind of sort of dig around really to find what’s important. We assume the stressor of one client is followed by another. And that enables you to have way more blind spots. Some clients may walk away out of your office and go, “You know what, Annamaria is really great, but I don’t think she met the needs of what I was hoping to get.”  And we get blindsided when clients kind of sort of leave. A lot of time I think that has to do with the fact that you were talking but the person didn’t hear you.

TM:

Also, in your article – speaking of talking and someone didn’t hear you – you mentioned, Annamaria recently wrote an article on active listening, and you said, “If you’re talking to yourself, you’re not listening to what your client is telling you.” So, it’s not only that, it’s talking to yourself, what do you mean by that? How does it relate to self-awareness?

AT:

Yeah, a lot of that has to do with what I call as internal dialogue. We all have internal dialogue. No, you’re not crazy! It’s something that you kind of sort of do and you say, “Urgh, I wonder if that’s good, I wonder if this makes sense.” That’s the things that we do we’re maybe not even aware we’re doing it. But what I explain to people is for every minute you spend doubting or conversing with yourself, well that’s a minute that you’ve now taken away from getting to know more the person in front of you, or at least listening. Because that person is not going to stop just because you’re thinking. A lot of times, people will say, “Well, I thought this is what she meant.” And I’m like, “Great. Did you validate it? Did you get confirmation? Did you get more insight that would have led you to conclude that what you were worried about what you should be worried about?” No. Remember, we are jumping to assumptions, so your internal dialogue, although great, all depending as to when or how long you let it go. This enables you from being an active listener.

TM:

So how can we learn to identify our biases and triggers so that we can be in the moment with our clients?

AT:

You know, there are a couple little tricks. Again, we can google “active listening,” and it’s going to tell us a lot of things, you know, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. It’s been done by way more experts in this domain, but I will say a couple things. First and foremost, stay focused. A lot of times, I’ll often say to people, “So, what was the point of the meeting?” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Well, I know you did your quarterly touchpoint with your client,” – or you’re doing your semi-annual or your annual – “what’s the focal point of that meeting? What do you want to get out of it and what does your client want to get out of it?” “I don’t know what they want to get out of it.” Well, maybe that’s something you should clear up right away from the beginning! So stay focused. Stay on point. What is it exactly that you want to say? Don’t get lost in details. A lot of times, when there is a pause, or when we’re seeing someone’s nonverbal – you know, their eyebrows go up, or, you know, they’re tensing up, what do we do? Our internal dialogue kicks in, we dump more information. You know, getting lost in details is a detriment, because you’re going to walk away going, “I have now said everything that I could have possibly said to Tanya.” Ya but all I did was just dump it all on you. Now I’m assuming you’re going to be able to digest that on your own. Check! I did my job. No.

In the world of advice, it’s not showing up and throwing up everything you have. It’s, what is the information Tanya can absorb, wants to absorb, needs to absorb, because I want to stay on point and focused on where I’m going. And I think the last element – so you know, stay focused, don’t get lost in details – more importantly, the last element is don’t act first and think later. A lot of times in our world, because it’s so mathematical, we’re working in finance, we work with numbers, we have a tendency to kind of sort of do 1+1=2. You ask me a question; I feel the need to answer you with a number. I need to be able to give you a binary kind of soft of answer. It’s a 1 or a 0. No. That’s not how it works. Don’t act on emotion, because you’re pressuring me into saying is it good or bad. A lot of times I say to people, “if you feel you’re not sure, push back.” Well, Tanya, in order for me to answer that question if you should take money out of your RRSP or not, I need to ask you a couple of more questions. Because there is important data that you have that I still need to have in order to give you that good guidance.

So, what am I doing? I’m not reacting to your question, although I feel the pressure, sense or urgency to answer. No, I’m not going to let that emotion come in. I mitigate that by saying, “Give me more clarity. Get me more data.” I’ll get you an answer pretty quickly, but remember, my job is to guide you. My job is to kind of sort of help you mitigate your blind spots. If I’m in an emotional state because I’m reacting to you, you’re not active listening. You are back into your head. You’re back into your dialogue.

So, staying focused, don’t lose yourself in details, despite the fact that you love those details, you spent a whole year building them, and don’t act first and think later. Think first and act just a little bit later. You’d be amazed what a 15-second pause can allow a dialogue to really be enriched.

TM:

So going beyond just, “What has my portfolio done? Here are some of things you have.” It’s diving a little bit deeper than that.

AT:

Well, my question to you, Tanya, is don’t you think that those can be commoditized? Those services?

TM:

I mean, ya, there are a bunch of different platforms these days that can actually provide me with a portfolio, what it’s made up of based on my risk assessment. For sure. I can go on and probably do it pretty cheap.

AT:

And the reality is today, logarithms weren’t really developed for active listening. They were transactionals. I see you clicked here, that means it jumps you to a conclusion. You clicked here twice, that means you must be interested in this. So the opportunity really in the world that we live in today if you really want to stand out with that human factor is when you can engage with a client, go beyond what is a given. Right? Go beyond what is digitally available or commoditized.

I think performances explaining the past, where you’re at, are you saving enough, those are given, those are table stakes. You are going to seek that advice. But remember, I want to stand out. In order to stand out, I have to figure out what are your blind spots. How do you do that? I can’t do that if I’m always talking. Because I know what I know but there are things you know that I don’t know.

TM:

That makes sense. That’s I guess adding value, right?

AT:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

TM:

That deeper understanding what the real needs and worries of a client’s are which to your point you can’t get from an algorithm, you can’t plug in, “Well, I need to worry about whether or not my child who has an underlying illness is going to be okay financially. I’m worried about that.” And all the other major realities that happen in people’s lives. You can’t plug that into a computer.

AT:

And even if you can, it’s going to be in a very restrictive environment. It’d going to ask you well, how much is this going to cost. To your point, you might now have a number to put. It’s a concern.

So again, are you actively listening to when a client is maybe jumping over certain facts and they’re probably diminishing their value by saying it’s not important. You can stand out by saying, “Well, no, I get why you’re saying you think it’s not important today, but you know what Tanya, this could be a problem for you 10 years out. We can mitigate that by doing A, B, C.” The value of going beyond the table stakes of your job is what I think is going to increase client loyalty. For sure.

TM:

So let’s get a little personal with you. You’re a Senior VP at National Bank, you work with many different divisions within the organization, you sit on a number of boards, you’re a wife, you’re a mother… How has active listening helped you in your multiple roles?

AT:

I think active listening has gone a long way of being extremely self-aware and what I mean by that is, you know, there’s an expression we always hear about intention versus impact. Yes, I’ve always had an impact when working with a lot of people, but sometimes the intention was never truly understood. Being aware that active listening, like, not jumping the gun, so when your kids say certain things, or when your husband says something or you know a colleague at work says something, it’s very quick for me, in the olden days I would kind of sort of jump to a conclusion. Like, they mean this, and this is not good. So you start with that negative reframe and you’re verbalizing it, only to realize you’re building friction, and you’re not.

What I’ve noticed is the most incredible leaders in the industry today, yes, they are amazing speakers, they have an eloquent way of using vocabulary to get their messages across, but do you ever noticed how they pause a lot? And they listen? And they absorb? And they give themselves that confidence. I’ve done that now in a lot of ways when I’m talking with my children, I’ll often tend to say, “Okay, so tell me why this is important. You’re telling me you have a dilemma. Tell me why this point that really bothers you, why is that important?” Now in the olden days, I would have said, “Oh. Forget about that. Let’s move on.” That’s me imposing on them, right? Like that’s my dialogue onto them.

Now, I become much more self-aware of the impact of what other people are feeling. So my intention is always the same, but the impact is felt in a much more collaborative way. People feel that I’m empathic, but I’ve always been empathic. Just the impact didn’t show it. So over time you do become a better person. You become a lot less stressed, you know you kind of sort of don’t do those highs and lows anymore. Like that’s one thing that I would  say you know, if you have to categorize youth, when you’re in your 20s and your 30s and  you have these high days and these low days and the range goes crazy. When you’re active listening, you never get really low. You never get really high. You’re usually in a very comfortable position of confidence the whole day. It’s putting forward your best foot without judgements or assumptions but yet being able to challenge people in a proactive and constructive way.

TM:

Annamaria Testani, thank you very much for joining us today on NBI Quick Takes. We appreciate your insights.

AT:

Thank you very much, it was actually really fun to have this, Tanya. We should do this more often!

TM:

Definitely! For those of you listening, thank you for joining us today. Should you have any questions or comments, please reach out to your National Bank Investments representative. We always appreciate the feedback. Thank you!


Host

Tanya Machpherson

Regional Vice President, Central Canada

Tanya Macpherson has worked in the investment industry for over 18 years and currently holds the position of Regional Vice President of Central Canada for National Bank Investments. In this role she is responsible for the central Canadian sales team for both external distribution and internal banking.   Prior to Joining National Bank, Tanya has had a successful career in sales having worked at BMO Global Asset Management as well as a boutique mutual fund company and a large insurance firm. Tanya holds an honours degree in Environmental Politics and Geography from Brock University.

Guest

Annamaria Testani

Senior Vice-President, National Sales

Annamaria Testani is Senior Vice-President, National Sales of National Bank Investments Inc. since June 2020. She has almost 20 years of investment experience and has held increasingly important leadership positions in various management and business development functions. She is a proactive agent of change related to different aspects of sales, National Accounts and marketing. Recognized as a determined person who successfully contributes to improving business development, she consistently achieves results that exceed expectations. An accomplished speaker and leadership coach, she has made it her mission to help women recognize, articulate and act on their greatest strengths and to help National Bank develop a more inclusive culture.

Alana Afzali

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