I just spent the week with three of my Proteus colleagues, teaching management and leadership skills to a group of 60 smart, dedicated professional women through a program called Rising Leaders. One of the core management skills we taught them (this was the group’s choice) was listening. I was thrilled they chose this skill. I dedicated the entire first chapter of Growing Great Employees to listening; I believe it’s foundational to success for both managers and leaders.
During the program, which we conduct twice yearly, I offer 30-minute individual mini-coaching sessions to the participants. One of the women I spoke with told me that, though she had found the listening segment dramatically useful, she also wanted to know how to get people to listen to her.
I suspect a lot of people have that question, so – here you go:
Michael D Brown
1. Listen. This may seem counter-intuitive, but by far the most effective way to get people’s attention is to give them yours. When you truly listen to someone – when you offer them your undivided focus, summarize their main points to make sure you’re tracking, ask curiosity-based questions to find out more – you’re demonstrating openness and respect in a powerful way. Most people automatically want to hear what someone who seems interested in them might have to say.
Whenever you feel like someone isn’t listening to you, try really listening to him or her first, and then see what happens. It doesn’t always work (some people are truly self-involved), but it usually does. [Note to parents – this often has good results even with teenagers.]
2. Cut to the chase. I was facilitating a meeting a few years ago for a senior operating group, most of whom were quite talkative, and at the same time quite good listeners. There was one guy, though – he would start talking, and within a minute or two, people’s attention would drift. I found I kept interrupting him (respectfully), trying to summarize for him, and he’d simply go off in another direction. It was really chewing up the group’s time, and breaking their focus.
I pulled him aside at a break, and told him I thought he had important points to make, but that people were having a hard time listening to him. “That always happens to me!” he exclaimed. “People don’t understand me, so I try to explain more.”
“Try to explain less,” I advised. He looked puzzled. “When you say something complex, and people aren’t getting it, it’s not going to help, generally, to say additional complex stuff. Before you start talking, take a minute to think about how to communicate the essence of your message in a simple way.” Happily, he made a real effort to follow my advice, and people were better able to listen to him. I read a really great article today by Kare Anderson in the Harvard Business Review blog, talking about just this situation. If you have a problem communicating in a simple, compelling way, I strongly suggest you read it.
3. Read the Room. If you’re talking to someone or to a group, and they’re not giving you their attention (surreptitiously looking at their phones, doodling, looking out the window, writing emails), they’re not listening to you. As above, you talking more is probably not going to help. Stop talking. Ask a question; find out what they’re interested in hearing. Even if you’re the most compelling speaker in the world, people won’t listen to you if they’re not interested in your topic. The depth of your passion for taxidermy is not going to engage your vegan friends – I don’t care how articulate you are.
To boil it down: if you want people to listen to you, first listen to them. And when you do talk, focus on topics they find interesting, and paint a vivid picture – use clear, compelling words and images.
Simple advice – but simple doesn’t mean easy. I’d love to hear experiences you’ve had in trying to get people (especially at work) to listen to you. What’s worked for you and what hasn’t?