The Greek philosopher Diogenes said, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more and talk less." That's wise advice for accounting and finance professionals. Active listening is a cornerstone of good communication and one of the important soft skills for accountants.
You need to communicate effectively with both clients and colleagues. Active listeners send verbal and nonverbal signals to show that they’re paying close attention. If you’re a job seeker, take note: Active listening is one of the soft skills employers look for during interviews. In a recent Accountemps survey, CFOs named communication as one of the top five non-accounting skills in demand for accounting and finance professionals.
Learn about an assortment of non-accounting skills in demand and how to build them.
You can improve your active listening skills by practicing them in conversation. It’s hard to know how others see you, so ask an understanding friend or colleague to give you feedback. Then when you practice active listening, consider the following tips:
Stop talking and stay focused
You can’t listen to others if you don’t give them a chance to speak. If you meet a client to talk over her new business idea, give her plenty of time to share before you respond. Don’t let your mind wander. Likewise, don’t begin formulating a response in your head until you’ve heard her out. In addition, display good tech etiquette; your smartphone can wait. Just focus on what your client is telling you.
Notice your nonverbal communication
People are very sensitive to nonverbal signals. If you send the message you aren’t listening, others will pick up on it. Sending the right signals is especially important for accountants in job interviews and client meetings. Try to smile at least some of the time. Make eye contact (but don’t stare). Lean in slightly toward the speaker, and don’t fidget. If you struggle in this area, ask a work friend to record you during a conversation. Like a golfer working on improving his swing, you can use the video to identify problems and correct them.
See the other perspective
It’s hard to listen actively if you’re already judging the speaker’s idea. Your negative attitude is likely showing on your face and can throw off the other person. Instead, try to see his point of view. If your new boss explains certain reporting procedures, listen intently, stay engaged and keep an open mind — even if you did things differently at your last accounting firm.
Ask questions as part of active listening
Ask relevant, open-ended questions to show you’re listening and interested. In a job interview, ask some questions that show you’ve been paying attention. For example, if the interviewer has indicated the position requires out-of-state audits, don’t later ask if the job involves travel.
It takes time to improve active listening as a soft skill, so be patient. It’s worth the effort. Effective listeners make good business leaders, so you could be on your way to a promotion. Master the art of active listening and you may also build stronger relationships with your accounting colleagues. Everyone likes to be heard. That’s why good listeners tend to be well-liked around the office.
Editor's note: This post was updated in 2016 to reflect more current information.