Reflections on Consulting from the World of Medicine: The Importance of Listening

NH Way


August 30, 2018

It’s almost 9AM on Monday. The sun breaks over a hazy London skyline. Greg was just about to take a bite of his artisan breakfast baguette as he sat down alongside his newspaper and coffee. Before he could start eating, a ring echoed from his waist and interrupted his first bite. This ringing was closely followed by, “Cardiac arrest on Ward Four… Cardiac arrest on Ward Four.” Greg rose from his chair, swooped down to the coffee table to grab his shiny stethoscope, and purposefully ran to Ward Four. He was greeted by a team that was performing chest compressions on a figure lying in the bed. Greg calmly ran his eyes across the team, the equipment, and the numbers flashing up on the monitoring screens. He rose his hand and heroically shouted: “Everybody stop. Everybody clear.” He struck the bright shining button on the defibrillator and a shock was delivered to the lifeless figure in the bed. Silence and anticipation spread through the ward. “Boop boop… Boop boop.” The heart was beating again.

Five miles away, the morning sunlight ricocheted off Jeannie’s new Rolex Pearlmaster. The big hand was approaching the 12 o’clock mark and her helicopter was just touching down on the glitzy helipad at Canary Wharf. She exited the helicopter holding her morning coffee. The wind from the helicopter blades sent neat little ripples down her tailor-made Italian suit. She calmly strolled across the helipad, briefly taking in the view of the River Thames before entering the building and taking her place at the front of the boardroom. She began presenting to an enthralled board at exactly 9AM. Her insights and ideas dazzled and amazed the room for a full hour. At the end of her presentation, rapturous applause began around the table. She exited the room followed by a gaggle of board members begging her to stay and talk for longer. She emphatically announced, “I best be off. The helicopter is waiting to take me to Monaco.”

Now, as much as I’d love to tell you I have lived these lives. I can’t.

In fact, I’m not sure anyone has outside of dramas on Netflix. Unfortunately, these glossy views of medicine and management consultancy don’t exist. Let me first shatter a few illusions: Greg is likely to have been on his fourth night shift on the trot, his baguette was probably nothing more than a burnt piece of toast, his pager would have been going off all night with a battery on its last leg, and the doctor’s mess is probably nothing more than a store cupboard with no lightbulb. Unfortunately for Jeannie, her situation isn’t all that realistic either. She probably doesn’t own a Rolex, I doubt she’s been in a helicopter, and while she probably had a 9AM meeting, I doubt the projector was working. Oh, and her next meeting wouldn’t have been anywhere near as glamorous as Monaco. Possibly Costa Coffee, if she’s lucky.

As a management consultant today, I bring a unique perspective having worked as a physician. While these two professions, although both glamorized, still seem worlds apart, there are things we can share and learn between the two. Over the course of these articles, I will share some universal insights as a consultant coming from the medical field.

The first learning is a simple one. Listen. There’s a cliché phrase in medicine that says: “If you listen, your patient will give you the answer.” What this really means is that if you take a few minutes and let the patient talk through what they’re feeling, how long it’s been happening and what they’re worried about, the patient will often lead you to the correct diagnosis (assuming they’re conscious!). This is a powerful tool that has served me well in my role as a consultant working directly with clients.

In first entering consulting, I was given another cliché: “Lend me your watch and I will tell you the time.” You’ll often hear different versions of this saying. (Unfortunately for our friend Jennine, this watch isn’t going to be a Rolex either.) It reminds me that—much like the patient—the client can offer valuable insight in helping to shape the answer. Your best skill is simply to listen to the client: he or she lives these problems day-to-day and is in the best place to tell you what they are!

Here are some of the actionable principles that I believe are most important when it comes to the art of listening—all concepts that I’ve learned in medicine, but are universally applicable to management consulting.

  • Be selective about setting. Choose somewhere quiet and distraction free. This allows all parties to focus on the conversation and fully engage with questions.
  • Embrace the golden minute. In medicine, the “golden minute” is the first 60 seconds of an interaction. Start the conversation with an open question and let the client speak uninterrupted. This initial phase of discussion typically holds the most valuable insight.
  • Actively listen. Maintain your eye contact, keep your body language open, Nod occasionally, encourage further conversation by smiling and make small verbal comments.
  • Defer judgement. Stay quiet and let the client speak. This will help build rapport with your client and build a relationship for future interactions. Defer your judgement until they have been voiced their perspective.

Seeing the parallel? Both Greg and Jennine practice listening in daily life. In fact, it’s the most useful tool in their toolkits—from the perspective of both a physician and a consultant. Both must seek first to understand, before being understood. Then, and only then, can they utilize their knowledge and skills (and of course excellent PowerPoint skills) to provide a solution.

It’s been a busy Monday. Both Greg and Jennine are ready for the day’s end. Let’s keep a look out and see what the rest of the week brings…