A Recovering Talker’s Guide to Listening

Most of what we learned in elementary school was based on how well we memorized and recited back to teachers, through written tests and discussion, the information we were taught. It was far less common to receive instruction on how to listen and synthesize the information, and how to ask questions and process the information. Think about how much better we’d all be if we spent time focusing on how to listen in class so that we could better understand the information being shared. 

Now, as an adult who works as a lawyer-lobbyist, I realize the importance of listening and asking questions. It’s not always easy, especially when you really want to immediately tell a state decision-maker your client’s story, whether it be a legislator, an agency official or someone working in the Governor’s front office.

After all, lobbyists certainly need to share why there’s a need for health care legislation, or how a technology bill will help further build an industry with family sustaining jobs, for example. And it remains important to have your message be sharp and focused, and to speak with the appropriate decision-makers at the right time during the legislative process, and before a procurement process officially begins. 

But asking questions and listening may be one of the most critical – and underrated — skills to master as a lobbyist. 

When Judge Brandon Neuman swore into office the new Pennsylvania Speaker Bryan Cutler, it was Judge Neuman who reminded us of the importance of listening:

“[Representative Cutler] did a lot of speaking as a member, Majority Whip, and Majority Leader. Now he has the title of Speaker, but I am going to tell you right now, Bryan, your job is to listen.

Listen to both sides of the aisle, let people know what is going on, because this House, the numbers next to your name will always live on. As my name was erased, your name will be erased one day, but those numbers on your district will remain, and the thing that is – the greatest honor to represent your district is to be heard. So, Bryan, the only charge that I give to you is to listen.”

Listening and analyzing what is being said is going to help determine how to get the best result for a government affairs client. But to listen intently, you need to be focused and have a good understanding of what makes the speaker tick. That way you can best understand how the person wants you to hear his or her words, and what too is not being said. 

I’ve heard from clients and others one too many times that they spoke to a legislator who said they want to be helpful. A legislator wanting to be helpful is not in question, but is that legislator willing to sponsor your legislation, vote for your bill or ask their leadership to move a bill out of committee and to the floor for a vote? The details matter. Appropriate follow-up questions influence your legislation’s outcome.

Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News political journalist, recently explained that “what I try to do is listen to the answers [when interviewing]. And I don’t go in with a preset notion and a list of questions that I’m going to ask. Because when you do that, you don’t hear when someone says something that may be new or interesting or provocative [and whether it] is correct or incorrect, which you’d want to challenge or follow up. So there’s an organic process involved.”

By the time my daughters got to high school, they would each spend time studying their notes and textbooks for upcoming tests. One of them would only study after asking the teacher about the test for which she was preparing. What material would be covered on the test and what format would the test follow — multiple choice, short answer or essays?

It was from asking these follow-up questions and listening closely to the answers that she was able to better hone her focus so as to not unnecessarily study information that would not be on the test. And she had an edge that her sisters didn’t because of how this preparation facilitated her studying.

Just as classroom learning and success are linked to the ability to listen, ask the right questions and listen closely to the answers, so too is it linked to successful outcomes in lobbying. As a Pennsylvania state lobbyist for 20 years and a legislative staffer for 15 years, asking the right questions and listening closely to what a government decision-maker is – and isn’t — saying in meetings is critical. 

Sometimes it’s not so easy, and by no means have I mastered it. I’m not sure anyone ever really does. But hearing the decision-maker that you’re speaking with and listening intently can help you get the outcomes you seek as an advocate.

The best government affairs firms create a culture of active listening. When we ask good questions and truly listen to the answers, we learn so much more than simply reciting rote facts as we did in grade school. Good listening skills makes our government and public affairs work successful.

This insight was written for Ridge Policy Group by Laura Kuller, our Government Affairs Counsel. Before joining the team, Laura spent years working for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives.

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