Getting your message across can be hard, especially when the listener is faced with myriad distractions. One challenge you may not know about, though, is clearing the listening tendency hurdle. We all have a preference for processing information, and if your delivery doesn’t match the person’s preferred intake method, you may be fighting a losing battle, says Ethan F. Becker, Ph.D., president and senior coach and trainer for The Speech Improvement Company and coauthor of Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence.
“People think and process information in one of two ways: inductively and deductively,” he says. “The inductive thinker needs all of the background information first and then the point. The deductive thinker needs the point first and then the background information.”
It’s an easy concept to understand but difficult to implement. Deductive thinkers believe inductive thinkers are wasting time beating around the bush, while inductive thinkers think deductive thinkers are harsh and insensitive.
“But there isn’t a right or wrong, effective or ineffective method,” says Becker. “The key is to know who you’re talking with.”
Inductive vs. Deductive Listening
You can discern how a person thinks by paying attention to how they present information. Do they usually cut to the chase? Or do they take you along their decision-making journey step by step? Then form your presentations or asks based on how their tendencies.
“People often assume management uses deductive thinking,” says Becker. “That’s not always the case. The reality is that you need to listen carefully and be ready to pivot. That is the skill—like a soccer player who can kick the ball with their left or right foot.”
For example, your CEO may be an inductive thinker who likes a lot of information upfront. If you want to get approval to participate in an expensive conference, you may start the conversation by saying: “I just had lunch with our sales manager who told me about a great trade show that could help us increase our bottom line. Our competitors will be there, so we don’t want to miss out on the exposure. My schedule is open that week, and I could fly to Vegas to attend.” Then add the bottom line: “It costs $50,000.”
“When it’s a big ask, giving the information upfront helps an inductive thinker prepare for the question,” says Becker. “Go through data points first, then ask at the end.”
If your CEO is a deductive thinker, simply flip the conversation around, starting with the price of the exhibit and then backing it up with the reasons why it’s a good idea to attend.
Listening and Emails
Written communication can also benefit from the inductive vs. deductive thinking rules.
“Emails should almost always be deductive,” says Becker. “An inductive email can be frustrating, and the receiver either doesn’t read it or doesn’t understand it. You can usually take your last line, paste it at the top, and delete the rest.”
Only one type of email calls for being inductive, says Becker. “That’s an email from a long-lost friend,” he says. “In that case, give me everything you have so I can enjoy it.”
Shifting In Real Time
The good news is that if you use the wrong form in the beginning, it doesn’t mean you blew it, says Becker. “If you see the other person is zoned out or their body looks annoyed, pause for a moment,” he says. “You may be presenting your information with an inductive slant and your listener has deductive tendencies. Skip ahead. With practice it becomes easier.”
Sometimes circumstances in the moment may impact the best way to deliver your information. For example, if you ask your manager if they’ve got a minute and they respond with an abrupt-sounding, “What do you want?” you can assume you need to be deductive with your information or come back later.
“Skilled communicators can navigate that live by having good listening eyes and ears,” says Becker.
There’s no one right way to present information, and when you adapt your communication style to match what listeners need, you’re striving for accuracy not inauthenticity, says Becker.
“There’s so much room for misunderstanding today,” he says. “Having tools and techniques can be useful. Your goal is to present your ideas in a way where the listener can best understand and comprehend so they don’t hear something out of context that sends them on the wrong tangent.”