Leveraging Your Most Vital Skill

May 06, 2021

In this episode of The Agent Leader, Brent talks through a vital, yet often under-utilized skill for every leader or professional - being a high-level communicator. 

Your influence depends on your communication, so, how are you doing in these three areas?

Brent Kelly:

Welcome to The Agent Leader Podcast, our mission here is to help agency leaders and professionals like you to gain clarity, to build consistency, and to make a commitment to become your best version possible.

Now on today's episode, I'm going to talk about the most vital skill that quite often is just not utilized, not leveraged at the highest possible level it should be. And I've talked about this in different areas of this podcast, but there's so much of a deeper level. And I want to just hit three areas where this specific skill must be utilized.

Listen, if you're an agent leader where you're leading a team, or if you're a sales professional and you're out there leading your clients, if you're a claims person or service person and you're out there having these conversations, as I've always said, influence is the heart of leadership. And you all have influence. And the most vital skill in influence is to be a high-level communicator, right? 

Many, many years ago now, I won't give the exact years, but I was probably, seven or eight years old. My mom would always say something that I thought was really profound. She said, "Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still." Now, maybe you've heard that before, I'm sure she's not the only person that would use that phrase.

But think about that, those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still, which basically means this. We can try to tell people how to think or what to think, or what to do, the next step to make. We could do that and it might work a little bit, especially if you've got some type of positional power or you write the paycheck. But that's not long-term success, we all know that. At some point that runs out and it's frustrating for really everybody involved.

And so what I want to share today is this idea of communication, the vital skill. When I say vital skill, think about vital signs. If you were to be rushed into the hospital and you're having a heart attack, they're going to check your vital signs. They're not looking at the scrape on your knee.

And so often I see insurance professionals that miss this vital sign, this vital skill of communication. They overlook it or poo-poo it like, "well, yeah, of course I've got to talk and I've got to be a better listener and I should ask better questions." But they don't really go deep into it. And they never have the intention of trying to master it.

Now, we're never going to be perfect. You're never going to fully master anything, but you should be on the path to getting better. If you're an insurance professional, on a scale of one to 10, how vital, how important, is the skill of communication? I always hear 10, 11, 12, 13, 15. Yet, then I ask the question, "how diligently and deliberately are you practicing that skill and improving that skill?" And "are you attending programs and are you working with yourself and doing low risk practice, and role playing?"... Well, not so much. 

So what I'm going to talk about today is three areas. Again, this is not anything new, but my question is - how well are you doing these things? And so the three aspects that I want to go through is - how to ask powerful questions, how to be a true active listener, and how you gain more influence when you talk, when you speak.

As a father of five kiddos, some of you know that I've got five kids and they range from 17 all the way down to three. So like any parent or grandparent, or if you're an aunt and uncle, whatever it is, we know that little kids in particular ask a tremendous amount of questions. In fact, I saw a study, and I don't know how they actually proved all this, but the study was pretty interesting. It said the average four-year-old asked 360 questions per day. 

And I can tell you, again, having a three-year-old right now and an eight-year-old, these little kids, they ask a lot of questions. Well, why is that? Because they're naturally curious and they want to learn. That's why they ask questions. I don't know... So I'm going to ask you, mom and dad, or whoever. Why do we do this, why do we do that? When are we going to get there? I mean, that's the worst one, but a lot of questions, right?

They're naturally curious. But at some point as adults, and maybe even as we go through adolescence to teen to pre-adulthood, whatever, we start to lose our curiosity. We start to lose that awe and wonder of why do things work this way? Why do people do that? Why do we do that? Now, some of that is because we learn more. That's good, right? We have more information in our heads.

But I think also, I think the big thing that I see, certainly when it comes to the professional world, certainly with insurance professionals, is that we lose curiosity and we stop asking as many questions because of two main things, fear and insecurity.  We don't ask as many questions because we fear that we may look stupid, or fear that we may ask the wrong question, or fear that we may offend someone. It could be a number of fears. And we have insecurity. What if I look stupid? What if it looks like I don't know enough? What if I'm not as credible?

And it's interesting to me, because as you grow and expand in your professional world, you will certainly learn more and have more knowledge that you can share. I have the fortune and privilege of training and coaching thousands of insurance professionals. Now, when I look at whether it's keynote trainings, whether it's the ongoing programs that we run. The most successful producers going into the program, those with maybe larger books of business or more success from the agency perspective, however you want to define that, also ask the most questions. And guess what? They also stay to the end. Here's a quick plug. Every session that we run ... And you certainly can learn about all of our programs by going to www.sitkins.com/programs...But we do a 90 minute or two-hour virtual interactive live program. And at the end, we'll stay on, myself and Roger Sitkins, up to 30 minutes if they want, just to answer questions, just to have more dialogue and conversation.

And here's a shocker, the most successful producers that either have left the program, or have gone through it and then continued on in business or come back to us later to continue to learn, or those that have come into the program who are at a higher level, they stay for Q&A. They are the ones that ask the questions. They're always looking to learn. They're always curious. It's not that, "well, now I know enough, so I'm good." It's, "what else? What am I missing? How could I learn more?" And that's a big difference.

So I would just ask yourself how naturally curious are you? Are you continuing to try to learn by asking questions? Or are you just, thinking life's good enough? So what's your natural curiosity?

If we think about questions, and this certainly is more producer-based, but a couple of things on questions. Number one is that we know that just like we teach 80/20 for clients and revenue, that 20% of clients on average produce about 80% of revenue. There's also a philosophy of 80/20 that we should be asking questions 20% of the time and listening 80% of the time. 

There was a great acronym from the book, The 21 Secrets of Million Dollar Sellers, the author is Stephen Harvill. Great book, a lot of insurance analogies and stories in there. He has a section in there that talks about wait. W-A-I-T, which stands for, Why Am I Talking? I really would suggest that you go into any appointment or meeting, and have that tattooed in your eyelids. What are the questions I'm not asking that I should be asking?

If you're an insurance producer, what are the risk-based questions that you're asking? Are you going to an appointment and saying, what are the risk-based questions that no one else is asking? Or "how could I be more prepared before every appointment to say, what would be three risk exposures, that I'm going to be asking to learn more about how this client manages risk?", versus show up, throw up, blow up. Are you just kind of winging it?

We've done podcasts on points of differentiation. So you can go back and find some on differentiation. But do you have POD-based questions? If you know that, for example, an annual risk review is something that you do at a high level that most other agencies don't do. Or if you have a disaster recovery plan, or if you have an experienced modification program or system that gives you an advantage, are you asking open-ended peer-to-peer type questions?

These are questions that are open-ended and that they assume that they're already doing it. So just how are you asking those questions? Are you coming in prepared? How do you measure? What's the frequency? When's the last time? Share with me this. And then, of course, referral-based questions. Are you asking questions based on referrals?

It's amazing to me, that we've got these clients who want to help us and we're not prepared and willing to ask questions about how they could help us. Because if you go in and wing it, you're going to screw it up or look silly and that's why most people don't ask. So again, this is a vital skill, asking questions. Work at home, work in your office, work on asking questions that make people stop, think, and answer in terms of you.

And then here's the next part of communication. Active listening. Do you listen to reply or listen to understand? Some people ask questions only because they're told to ask questions and then they reply with what they were going to say no matter what the answer is. I know I've done that in different ways. "Well, I have something I have to say and something I need to share with you. And I'm the expert here, and I know everything. And I've led this team or I've been doing this for 20 years, whatever the case may be." So I ask you a question, and whatever your answer is, is just thanks for allowing me to listen. And now I'm going to tell you what you really need to know.

So do you listen to reply or listen to understand? As Stephen Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand, then to be understood. So to me, active listening is about going deeper in your conversation. It's about clarifying. It's about quantifying. Tell me why you feel this way. How did you come to that conclusion? What does that mean to you? What is the impact? How would that affect your business? I mean, these are just questions, but when someone gives you an answer, you're listening to them and want to make sure you understand.

Author Jerry Ballard has a great quote. He said, "All miscommunication is simply a differing of assumptions." Something like that. We just have different assumptions. Well, you said this and I thought you meant that. Have you ever been there? If I would have asked another question or listened more actively, I would have gotten to the true statement, not just what I wanted to hear.

So I would just ask yourself, how well are you doing active listening? When you ask a question or when you're having a conversation, do you clarify and quantify? "Why is it, tell me more about that, let me make sure I understand. This is what you said, is that what you meant?" It's also one of the greatest signals that you care about someone. There is no doubt, if you had a conversation with someone when they really want to define and clarify what you said, you feel appreciated. 

Last thing I'm going to share on this podcast, I just want to challenge you. This is a vital skill. Are you actively working on asking questions, and actively listening? And the last part, are you actively working on being a better speaker, a better presenter? Are you practicing things? Do you have a rehearsed, prepared 30-second commercial? Can you give a first appointment, what we call an executive briefing? 

This goes back to a study years ago. A UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, there's been some different takes on this study, but the bottom line is this. I think the overall point is that words are only a very small part of what people hear. In fact, in his study, he said 7% of influence comes from words. 38% of the influence comes from the tone of voice, and 55% comes from our physiology, our body language.

So how well are you using not just your words, but your tone of voice, or your body language? I mean, this is a podcast, I don't have video on this. But think about how much more impactful it is when you can see people's body language. Are they smiling? Are they shrugging their shoulders? Are their hands going back and forth? Whatever it may be. Those are things that we see.

I know my own family, the communication with my kids at home is much different around the table than it is on a text. I can't see the eye-rolls and the shrugs, or the smiles or the laughs. Those things I can't always see, but they are so important. If you want to be a great presenter, you've got to understand all three of those.

Now I spent several years in Toastmasters, and the reason was pretty simple. I knew that communication was going to be important to my success and I wanted to get better at it. Many people now are like, well, Brent, you're a pretty natural communicator. It comes easy to you. Yes. I enjoy speaking and training and coaching and those kinds of things, I do. I have a natural affinity to it. But I can tell you, I continue to try to work on getting better.

If you would've seen me 20 years ago speak, it would have been very, very painful. 10 years ago, painful. Five years ago, still pretty painful. Maybe last week, it was painful for some of them, I don't know. But the point of it is, I'm always looking to get better. And how can I get better next week and the next week and the next, because I know it's a vital skill for me as well, just like it is for you as an insurance professional.

Here's the bottom line on today's podcast. Ask yourself as a communicator, how do you truly rate yourself, and what's the next thing you're going to do to up your game? If you want to have the most success in this business, it's about leadership, it's about influence, and it's about moving from just basic communication to true human connection. That comes by being prepared and rehearsed to ask questions.

That comes by being a true active listener and understanding body language and tone of voice and physiology and your words all integrate that this person, when they speak, it means something more than most people, because they're good at it. As a communicator, as a connector, as a leader, as an influencer, what's your best version possible, and how are you going to get there?

Hey, thanks for being a listener to The Agent Leader Podcast. If you as an agency professional are looking to up your game at the highest level, and want to look to be part of our private client group or all-inclusive membership, where you have access to all of our trainings and programs that we run, please visit www.sitkins.com/programs and email us with any episode topic ideas at [email protected]


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