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Coaches Diary: Learning to Listen

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Coach Olivia Stefanino helps a talented interior designer understand the importance of listening.


Martine felt used and abused. She had struggled for two years to make a go of her interior design business and was disappointed to find that she was consistently less successful than her peers.

The quality of her work wasn’t a problem – this much was clear from the portfolio she had brought in to show me. Martine had also worked on several prestigious projects in her time, so she had some great testimonials for her work.

Martine’s problem – somewhat paradoxically - appeared to be her abundant enthusiasm. With her soft Irish lilt, she loved nothing more than talking about the effect colours and fabrics could have on a room. Indeed, while I was making us both a cup of coffee, Martine had already offered me a few design tips for making my own office more comfortable and easy on the eye.

Martine’s love of interior design was infectious – and it was with some regret that I turned the conversation back to the reason for her appointment.

While she was an extrovert and loved networking, Martine found that building up her clientele had been tougher than she had expected. While people loved talking with her about her design ideas, few of them converted into paying clients.

Worse, several of the contemporaries with whom Martine had studied had “borrowed” not only her design concepts but also her innovative ideas for winning new clients.

I asked Martine if her former colleagues had done more listening than talking – and reddening slightly, she admitted that I was right. She also agreed with my suggestion that perhaps they were less forthcoming with their ideas – but more happy to soak up her enthusiasm, energy and creativity.

Similarly, when she was talking with potential clients Martine admitted that she gave away loads of ideas and design tips for free – in the mistaken belief that people would feel more comfortable with her and believe that she knew her subject.

However, as she was beginning to see, Martine was effectively giving away her expertise – which was her greatest asset - for free. After a conversation with Martine, her potential clients were often left with enough knowledge and confidence to be able to do the job themselves! And by discussing her marketing ideas with her colleagues, Martine was creating formidable competition for herself.

The solution was clear to us both. If Martine were to succeed with her interior design business, she needed to learn that careless talk costs business lives. Instead of answering questions, Martine had to learn to ask them. As most people like talking about themselves, Martine needed to develop a conversational style that would allow people to talk about their favourite subject!

Finally, before leaving my office, Martine also promised herself that she would only share the benefit of her expertise with people who were prepared to pay for it.

Olivia Stefanino is a leadership development consultant and executive coach. For more information on Olivia's work and to download your free e-booklet “128 ways to harness your personal power”, visit beyourownguru.com

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