Listening is often touted as one of the most important skills a good leader can have. Then why do so many of us feel like we’re not being heard?
“I think the main reasons people don’t listen is often because they are already overwhelmed inside their mind–meaning, they don’t have bandwidth available to take in new information or data,” says psychiatrist and University of California, Los Angeles professor Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.
They may also be stymied by emotional responses, distraction, or “specialist’s dilemma,” where the message recipient may feel uncomfortable with the subject matter because it’s outside of his or her area of competence.
As a communicator, note these seven steps you can do to improve your delivery, and recognize the situation to increase how often your message is heard:
Before you try to be heard, take a moment and look at the message from the other person’s perspective, Goulston says.
- How will the other person receive what you’re saying?
- Will the message have an impact on him or her?
- Are there extenuating circumstances that will affect how your message is received?
Understanding the other person’s state of mind from the outset will help you tailor your message in a way people will listen.
Being wishy-washy or unclear isn’t going to do anything to get you heard.
“Realize that what [the other person] is going to be asking in his or her mind is, ‘What’s the issue? Why is it important to what we’re trying to accomplish? What do you want me to do?’” Goulston says.
Rick Bommelje, professor and chair of the communication department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida and author of Listening Pays: Achieve Significance through the Power of Listening, says four listening styles exist:
People-oriented: This listener is concerned with relationships and understanding the emotional states of others. He or she may check in with you during the listening process to understand your state of mind.
Action-oriented: This person wants to get to the point very quickly. Be very clear about what you want, and be focused on your communication. An action-oriented listener will hear inconsistencies, so be sure you have your facts straight.
Content-oriented: Be prepared to answer questions and get into the nitty-gritty because this listener wants to look at all sides of an issue and understand the nuances of what you’re saying.
Time-oriented: Don’t waste this listener’s time. Be clear about how much time you need and stick to that allotment because this listener is a clock-watcher.
Once you have a good understanding of the individual’s style, you can adapt your message. If you’re dealing with a people-oriented person, then you may pull up a chair and have a cup of coffee together.
However, asking a time-oriented listener if he or she has “a minute” might work to your disadvantage because he or she is immediately thinking: “You don’t mean that. You’ll need more than a minute,” Bommelje says. The quicker you pick up on the nuances of how someone listens, the quicker you can adapt your communication style so they’ll be most receptive, he says.
If it’s clear the other person just is too distracted or isn’t paying attention to you, it can be helpful to address the issue in a forthright way, Goulston says.
This can be tricky, especially if the other person is in a position of power or is in a volatile emotional state, but saying something like: “Is this something that you’re open to talking about now,” or “I’m sensing that this might not be the best time to talk,” followed by suggesting another specific time. This will typically make the other person more aware and focused on you. Or else allow him or her to defer until a time when they may be better able to listen.
If emotions such as anger or frustration are getting in the way of you being heard, recognize that in the conversation. Bommelje uses the “golden pause,” letting silence defuse the moment.
If someone is angry, you might say something like: “This might not be the best time to talk about this,” followed by a pause. He also suggests using reflective works, saying something like, “It appears you’re annoyed,” then pausing. This will give you a better read on the person’s emotional state, or the validation may calm him or her, allowing the conversation to continue. Either way, you have a cue as to where to go next with the conversation, he says.
Sometimes, the circumstances, emotions, or other factors in a situation simply make it a bad time to be heard. If your best “get heard” tactics aren’t working, save the discussion for another time, Goulston says.
Revisiting something later when the listener is better able to hear what you’re saying is often more effective than powering through a situation that isn’t ideal.