Listen, learn and move on

Listen. Listening to what our customers have to say is crucial. And it is not just the words that count, take heed of the non-verbal clues too.  The following is an example of how I learnt having failed to understand two clients’ strengths.

Context is always important. During my year in Germany, I took a number of training sessions at the huge CHEMPARK Krefeld-Uerdingen plant which is managed and operated by Currenta, a joint venture between Bayer and LANXESS AG. My two students were engineers responsible for monitoring levels of phosphine, organizing and overseeing the installation of repairs. Phosphine (sometimes called phosphane) is a toxic, colourless and highly flammable gas.

Health and safety was paramount. Before even setting foot in the plant visitors had to watch a video in German on the potential dangers associated with working at the site and then answer a series of multiple choice questions about what they had heard. Non-German speaking colleagues had to be escorted by a German speaking Bayer employee at all times. In the event of an emergency instructions would be issued in German via loudspeakers.  I enjoyed my solitary walk from the turnstile by the visitors’ entrance past all manner of industrial activity to the building (a large metal portacabin like structure) where my lessons were held.

My students, two men in their late thirties/early forties, were going to do a secondment in China where they would need to communicate with non-German speaking colleagues in English. Turning up in my business suit while they were dressed in boiler-suits I wondered what they must have thought of me.

Establishing what clients want and then delivering it in the most appropriate way is not always straightforward. Listening is key. I had some worksheets that I hoped would be appropriate. And was eager to learn as much about them as I could. As we chatted, and I listened, I tried to reactive their underground reservoirs of English that had lain largely untapped since their school days.  Encouraged by their effort and application, they were nice guys who were keen to learn, I saw the opportunity to introduce some structure, in the form of some industry specific vocabulary presented on worksheets. The tempo dropped; their interest waned, their shoulders sagged, they began to fidget and their heads began to droop; they tried to sustain their interest out of politeness.  I had listened but not well enough.

Not everyone enjoys classroom based learning and why should they? My students were bright and capable but their skills lay in applying what they knew in practical contexts.

I needed to get a handle on what they did and relate to them in a way they understood.  Goodbye abstract, hello concrete: what did they do and how could I best help them to get their English up to speed in the short time we had together?

It is OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and do not repeat them. Listen, learn and move on.

In the following lesson my students arranged and then led me on a tour of their part of the sprawling plant. I listened intently and noted the obvious pride and expertise they had in their work. I asked lots of questions.  What does this do? And encouraged them to explain as best they could.

They pointed out various kinds of equipment from fire exits to fire extinguishers to more technical pieces of piping. Where appropriate I introduced new vocabulary, pointing at it where possible to reinforce the learning, and got them to repeat it back to me.  On our return to our makeshift classroom, I tested them on the vocabulary I had introduced or reinforced.  I was impressed by how much they remembered both then and, still more so, the following week.

How can we adequately consult our clients if we do not understand, to the best of our ability, the context in which they operate and their own strengths? Listen, learn and move on. And listen again


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