Why no one hears what you’re really saying

We rarely consider the linguistic styles and conversational rituals that determine who gets heard and how our abilities and ideas will be judged.

Why no one hears what you’re really saying
[Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay]

Don’t think you’re being heard? You’re probably right. And it might be hurting your career advancement.


Because it’s not just what you say; it’s the way you say it, what tone of voice you use, the rate of speed in which you speak, the style you say it in,  your word choice, what figures of speech you use, and more.

While most of us spend time preparing what we’ll say before a presentation or a job interview, we rarely consider the linguistic styles and conversational rituals that determine who gets heard and, in a work environment, judgments on your abilities and ideas.

Case in point, consider how subtle cross-linguistic differences can impact what and how people remember conversations and events. A study conducted by Stanford researchers found that English speakers place blame more than Spanish and Japanese speakers do. Why? Because the agent of causality is dropped in accidental events in Spanish and Japanese but not in English. For example, an English speaker may say “John broke the vase” but Spanish and Japanese speakers say “the vase broke” or “the vase was broken.”

Below are a few factors to keep in mind to help you become a more effective communicator and, in turn, a better listener for more successful talks:

Your conversation styles are off

Think about all of the nuances that happen in a conversation. There are the nonverbal cues and signals sent during turn-taking that communicates when it’s okay for a listener to speak, respond, and even interrupt. The length of the pauses that subtly send these messages is impacted by cultural factors and where you’re from.


Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistic at Georgetown University, writes about this “subtle negotiation of signals” in the Harvard Business Review. She says someone from New York may feel uncomfortable with silences and therefore, fill it with more talk. This particular element of linguistic style leaves the other party waiting for the pause indicating turn-taking that never comes. The New Yorker may think the other party isn’t confident or has enough to contribute, whereas the listener may think the New Yorker is too pushy and not interested in anyone’s ideas except for his own.

What you can do: Understand the other party’s listening style, then adapt your message to it.
According to Rick Bommelje, author of Listening Pays: Achieve Significance through the Power of Listening, there are four listening styles:

  1. People-oriented where the listener is focused on relationship and understanding the speaker’s state of mind.
  2. Action-oriented where the listener wants the point of the speech quickly before giving background information.
  3. Content-oriented where the person wants to look at the issue from all angles and sides.
  4. Time-oriented where the person needs the speaker to stick to the time they’re allotted.

So if you are speaking to someone who is people-oriented, consider meeting them over coffee to share your message, Bommelje told Fast Company in 2015. If you’ve determined your listener is action-oriented, know that they will hear inconsistencies so have your facts straight. Do not be wishy-washy and know that they’re wondering to themselves while you’re speaking, “what is the point or issue here? What are we trying to accomplish?” If they’re content-oriented, be prepared to have answers to nitty-gritty questions. And if they’re time-oriented, get to the point quickly and be clear about how much time you need.

Your voice opens you up to bias

It’s true that factors such as sloppy grammar or ending your sentences with a slight uptick can undermine your credibility, but sometimes, it’s just your voice.

For instance, this experiment found that the “average American listener” preferred a “Southern Standard British English” rather than a New York City accent when both were saying the exact same words. More importantly, these listeners remembered more of what the English speaker said and deemed them as smarter.


In more insidious findings, Meghan Sumner, an associate professor of linguistics at Stanford University, told Fast Company that when a man and woman said the exact same thing, women’s voices received lower ratings from listeners when it came to factors like being trustworthy, clear, and comprehensible. Even when a man’s voice is deemed as not so reliable or intelligent, his rating is upgraded when he’s compared to a woman’s voice.

What you can do: Iris Bohnet, behavioral economist at Harvard University, explains in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design that structured job interviews with the same questions, in the same order, can take out some of the societal biases that put women at a professional disadvantage. Similarly, taking notes or having someone else take notes during presentations and meetings can be particularly valuable. Listeners can read over the notes and see what was said rather than focusing on the speaker’s voice, demeanor, or demographic characteristics.

You are associated with baggage

Listeners may assume they know you based on what they presume about a group of people. For instance, this study found that when the word “academy” is said by a man, listeners assume he’s speaking about a school, but if a woman says “academy,” listeners assume she’s mentioning an award show.

Gabriel Grant, CEO of Human Partners and author of the book Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World, says sometimes it’s the associations and the baggage that’s projected onto you that stops people from really hearing you. It’s all the experiences and everything they’ve encountered before you.

What you can do: Identify all of the baggage that could be detrimental to your message, Grant told Fast Company in 2018. Try to imagine what they think you stand for, and acknowledge that at the start of your conversation.


Despite effective listening being a critical leadership skill, it’s also one of the toughest to get right, as most of us never developed habits that make us good listeners. And thanks to technology and the influx of information and data, the bandwidth people have for new messages is dwindling. Still, a lot of career advancement happens based on who gets heard and what ideas get executed.

You can’t control a person’s listening skills, but you can understand the nuances that impact a message so that you can tailor yours. Ask people how they like to communicate to learn their communication style. Understand that biases exist and take steps to make sure the message you want heard is the one that comes through. Put yourself in their shoes so you can identify potential problems, like the baggage associated with you, from the beginning. Then, repeatedly adapt based on your audience.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.