Taking instructions is a bit like having a really good conversation, both involve actively listening to the other person. My father, who was a thoughtful man, once told me, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason and we should use them in the same ratio!

I was reminded of this when I listened recently to an excellent Ted talk by Celeste Headlee called “10 ways to have a better conversation”. I thoroughly recommend it to you. Her rules were very clear, I have summarised my interpretation of them each after the colon.

  1. Don’t multi-task: be present in the moment and focused only on the other person. Put away all physical and mental distractions.
  2. Don’t pontificate: at this moment your opinion is best kept to yourself, regarding Rule 1, don’t even think about it.
  3. Use open-ended questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Be curious, truly find out what the other person is thinking.
  4. Go with the flow: let your own thoughts go out of your mind.
  5. If you don’t know say that you don’t know: be truthful.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs: it is never the same, it is not about you, rather find out how that made them feel.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself: don’t do it.
  8. Stay out of the weeds: forget the details. (This may be less relevant to taking instructions where details are important but perhaps come back to them later if they would get in the way of understanding the main objective at present).
  9. Listen: the most important skill – this is really difficult as it takes significant effort and energy to listen to someone carefully. We need to avoid the temptation to fill in the gaps with our own experience – see rule 6! ( But see also my paragraph below)
  10. Be brief: keep an open mind. Don’t make assumptions. Again subject to my thoughts on instructions below.

I wrote in another article about actively listening to your client to get the right instructions. See: “The customer is always right” – November 14, 2022″. That said, as your relationship with your client develops they will expect you to acquire a certain amount of knowledge of them and their industry. Some of the above questions may seem less prevalent but, as I said there, you always need to confirm that your assumptions remain correct generally and in this instance..

This balance between inquiry and client empathy is a difficult one. It requires experience and understanding. I would always err on the side of inquiry, at times repeating (despite Rule 7 above) in my own words what I believe I have been told to make sure I have it right. I have found that exercising client empathy and understanding can often help your client articulate their thoughts but always make sure you have correctly understood them! Your client will usually forgive not fully understanding them or their industry but not getting the facts wrong or making the wrong assumptions!