Active listening is a cornerstone of effective interpersonal communication. It’s therefore an essential skill for tax professionals.
Active listening involves both hearing what your client or colleague is saying and ensuring they know you hear what they’re saying.
It helps you to build rapport with your clients and colleagues. It demonstrates your respect for them. It also helps you to earn their trust.
They’ll know that any recommendations you subsequently present will be based on a deep understanding of their specific needs.
Before you begin listening to someone, try to ensure that you approach the conversation with an open mind.
It helps to let go of any negative, pre-conceived notions you may have about what the other person may be about to say, or even about their personality.
If you decide, beforehand, that the person may be ignorant, misguided or obstinate, this hypothesis is likely to affect your ability to hear or understand the information they give you.
Become comfortable with silence
It’s OK to give the other person time to think about what they wish to say in response to your initial question or statement.
The more time they have to think and reflect, the more likely they’ll be able to articulate their ideas in a clear, comprehensive manner.
So don’t be too quick to interrupt their thinking process just because you may be slightly unnerved by an extended break in the conversation.
Give verbal feedback
When the other person begins to speak, your verbal response should simply be in the form of encouraging remarks that reassure them that you hear and understand what they’re saying.
Remember, giving appropriate verbal feedback is the opposite of interrupting.
Simple words or phrases like ‘Yes’, ‘I see’ and ‘What happened then?’ can encourage the other person to continue speaking and to elaborate on a topic.
You might repeat back – in their words or your paraphrasing of their words – some of their key statements. This demonstrates that you’re keenly interested in the information they’re giving you, and that you understand it.
After they’ve spoken for an extended period, you can also summarise their message in your own words. Again, this confirms your understanding and gives them an opportunity to fill gaps in their communication or to correct errors in your comprehension.
Whenever the other person appears reticent or reluctant to speak in detail, it’s useful to prompt them with relevant questions.
This will reassure them that you’re paying attention and are interested in what they have to say.
Try to ensure, however, that your questions are open-ended and encourage the other person to elaborate. Closed questions, that prompt no more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, will slow the conversation down.
Taking notes as the other person speaks is a good way of maintaining your focus on the subject matter at hand. It demonstrates to the other person that you value the information they are giving you. It will also help you remember the information at a later date.
Be careful, however, that your note-taking doesn’t make you appear disengaged from the conversation. It’s useful to look up regularly and to re-establish eye contact.
Be aware of non-verbal communication
If you’re speaking with someone in person, rather than on the telephone, your body language will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of your interaction.
For example, by maintaining eye contact (without staring), you continually reassure the other person that they have your attention.
Likewise, your gestures (including nodding and smiling) can silently encourage the person to open up, continue speaking or elaborate.
At the same time, your awareness of the other person’s non-verbal communication can help you ascertain their underlying attitude and feelings.
Practice makes perfect
Active listening is an ability you can develop and master with practice. And you don’t need to restrict active listening to client interactions. In fact, you can use the techniques described above in almost every conversation – professional and personal.
Good listeners are generally well-liked, and you may find that the benefits of active listening extend to many areas of your life and help you to build stronger relationships of all kinds.
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