The art of listening in the digital age

Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in an adviser’s toolkit, but they must learn how to use it effectively
by Sandra Paul 

Ask billionaire investor Warren Buffett about the biggest influences on his success and Dale Carnegie’s iconic 1936 book, How to win friends and influence people, is likely to come up. Buffett took the Dale Carnegie training course when he was 20 years old and to this day has the diploma hanging on his office wall. 

Since it was published, millions of people have read Carnegie’s book or attended his courses and his advice has stood the test of time. Many of his golden rules revolve around listening: be a good listener; encourage others to talk about themselves; become genuinely interested in other people; try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view; and be sympathetic to the other person’s ideas and desires. Carnegie discovered that, to be successful, knowledge alone is not enough. The way to be a more successful individual is to be mindful of others.   

If Carnegie were alive today, he would probably endorse the activities, including research and lobbying, of the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) to promote the power of listening for good mental health. According to the MHF, negative mental health will affect two-thirds of us at some point in our lives. One factor that can play a part in combating this is the act of listening. The MHF suggests:
  1. Listening actively to what others are saying in a non-judgemental way and concentrating on their needs in that moment.
  2. Being present in the moment, rather than being tempted to check your phone, Facebook messages or even work emails when with family and friends.
In financial services, listening is crucial to the successful relationship between a client and adviser, be that a financial planner, wealth manager or an investment manager. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood, the client feels unheard and undervalued and will inevitably leave for a competitor.  Listening in the digital eraUS academic Dr Charles Veenstra has studied what communication technologies do to the nature of communication, and particularly listening. In a March 2014 paper, Social media’s impact on listening and loneliness, he defines listening as receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and non-verbal messages. A central value of technology, he observes, is efficiency, and social media – through its immediate access to friends and rapid response functionality – encourages efficiency of communication. (He equates efficiency with speed in the context of the report, noting that nonverbal communication in digital media is mostly absent.) It is at odds, says Veenstra, with the slow and “inefficient” process of listening.

The ‘always on’ and ‘multitasking’ characteristics of social media don’t help either. They are major barriers to listening, Veenstra argues, quoting Nicholas Carr, author of The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains, who likens the multitasking encouraged by social media to reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle. 

Despite or even perhaps because of these barriers to active listening, digital native generations, millennials and younger, want a financial adviser who is more of teacher, who will educate them and can demonstrate that they place the client’s interest above their own. This is according to research about millennials and investing, published by FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the CFA Institute. They want to be encouraged to listen, as well as be listened to, in other words. 

Trying to get your message heard in the digital age is not easy when competing against a multitude of tools and messages. The increasing ‘noise’ has been said to contribute to rising stress levels and anxiety. Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation, writes in an MHF blog post about the pressures of living in the 21st century: “Never before in the course of history has so much information been spewed in our direction. When the demand for our attention outstrips the supply of time, stress is the result.”   

That’s why the art of listening is so valuable. When your business is based on a foundation of effective listening for all clients and colleagues, you will find you have created a trust-based, long-lasting profitable operation. Clients will stay with you because they trust you. They will refer their family, friends and colleagues to you because you are trusted and have their loyalty. Listening could turn out to be your greatest strength, just as Carnegie advised. 
This article was originally published in the Q1 2019 print edition of The Review. All members, excluding student members, are eligible to receive the quarterly print edition of the magazine. Members can opt in to receive the print edition by logging in to MyCISI, clicking on My account, then clicking the Communications tab and selecting ‘Yes’.

Once you have read the print edition, keep coming back to the digital edition of The Review, which is updated regularly with news, features and comment about the Institute and the financial services sector.

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Published: 20 May 2019
  • The Review
  • millennials
  • digital
  • advice
  • listening

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