How to be Heard When You Talk
12 Practices to Strengthen Your Communication Style
With the amount of talking we all do, it would be a good idea to step back and assess how well you think people listen when you are talking. Do you feel heard? Do you think that others value what you have to say? Do you have a voice?
The answer may vary depending on the situation, or on the person you are speaking with. Certainly some people listen better than others, and the depth of a relationship can make a difference. Even so, the question still stands: Do you feel heard?
Whether you answer yes or no, here are some ideas and practices that can help.
#1 Consider the level of receptivity.
You can talk your head off to someone, but if they are not in a place to hear what you have to say, it won't go in, and might even make things worse.
Before you say something, and especially if that something has any emotional content or could cause a reaction, consider the level of receptivity for hearing it.
How is this person going to receive what you have to say? Are they open to it? What type of reaction is likely?
You may decide not to say it at all, or to revise how you say it to make it more palatable to the person hearing it.
For example, if you give someone advice who doesn't want it, and who thinks they have nothing new to learn, then your words will fall on deaf ears no matter how you say them. You are also likely to be dismissed, or get an irritable or angry reaction. In this case, there is no receptivity.
But if you are speaking with teachers about new regulations that need to be followed, and you know they are not going to like them, you may gain some receptivity if you first speak to their objections and empathize with their feelings. In this case, you create receptivity by recognizing and validating their point of view, and then working toward a collaborative solution. Here there is a window of receptivity with the right approach.
It's good to assess whether that window exists before you waste your time and energy.
Sometimes you may not care whether there is a level of receptivity because you feel it's important to get what you have to say out there. This is especially true when fighting for a principle. Just know that going in.
#2 Be clear.
Make sure that your words actually match the intent of your statement.
If you say to your spouse
"It must be nice to take a nap after dinner every night!"
your words are not really matching your intent. You are angry in this case and object to your spouse taking the nap while you clean up the kitchen and do the dishes. But instead of saying that, you throw out a sarcastic remark that is somewhat hostile and unclear about what you really want.
The direct statement would be,
"I am upset with you taking a nap every night while I wash the dishes. It doesn't seem fair to me. I think you should help."
Now your words are clear and match your intent which is to express your frustration clearly, and say what you want.
Words should communicate directly, but when they are used to evoke emotions in the other person (guilt in this case), rather than communicate clearly, the communication becomes muddied and often conflictual. Make sure your words match your intention and state what you want.
#3 Your body language should reflect your words.
This follows with the one above. Along with choosing your words to match your intent, you body language should also reflect what's being said.
If your daughter is telling you about something exciting to her, and you use words that seem interested like "That sounds really fun!", but you are typing on your computer, or you are looking elsewhere and obviously have your attention on something else, then your body language says it all. You aren't really there.
There is disagreement among the experts about just how much impact body language has on communication, but in general it is agreed that it is a significant factor, and often carries more weight than the actual words chosen.
What is important is that your body language is congruent with the words you are using, as well as your intent and motivation for speaking. If any of these things are in opposition to each other, you will create confusion and sometimes even mistrust.
#4 Use emotional word pictures.
"Emotional Word Picture" is a concept I borrowed from Steven Scott in his book Mentored by a Millionaire. He defines it like this:
An emotional word picture is a word, a statement, or a story that creates an instant picture in listeners' minds that clarifies what you are trying to say and implants a feeling into their emotions. (p. 109)
I could talk to a group of educators about the importance of children getting exercise outside and lay out all of the statistics and research that has been done on the subject. But if I really want to get their attention, I could create a picture and remind them of what it was like to be outside as a child and play and run around:
Being in the sun and experiencing the motion of swinging on a swing while the air fell across your body each time you swung forward, and hearing the sound of the other kids playing next to you that made you feel included and safe. Taking in the scent of freshly mowed lawns, or feeling the rush of dizziness on the merry-go-round, or playing kick ball, or just lying on your back and looking up at the sky.
You get an immediate visual and memory of your own experiences outside as a child and the feelings you had. It becomes personal. That word picture has a far greater impact than any amount of statistics you might hear about the value of outside exercise for kids.
When you bring up memories or create pictures through stories or sensory experiences, you create an emotional impact and response that has direct meaning, and this creates greater interest and understanding
#5 Ask for clarification.
Never assume you know exactly what someone means when they are talking. You may know them well and be on the mark, but it's always safe to ask questions for clarification and repeat back what you understand them to be saying.
That way, they feel understood and heard, and you will be clear on what was said and meant. That puts you in a much better place to respond. It also creates cooperation, even if there is a dispute, because you are showing respect.
#6 Listen with true interest and an open mind.
This is a big one. In order to be heard, you have to also be a good listener. People will instinctively ascribe more power to your words if they feel you are interested in them, and interested in what they have to say.
To listen with interest, it is important to turn your attention completely toward the person speaking. This means putting down your phone or clearing any other distractions that are in the way, and looking at them directly with an attitude of open attentiveness. Your body language should say,
"I am here, I'm listening, and I'm interested in what you have to say."
The second part of this is to listen without interrupting. Your goal should be to hear the other person out and seek to understand what they have to say and what they mean. All of this should occur before you respond, even if your thoughts are in opposition to theirs.
You can show real interest in understanding someone's point of view even when you disagree with it. That interest conveys respect. It shows that you value their right to have an opinion or to have their own thoughts.
When listening, adopt the attitude of a detective who's trying to find out the facts. Always keep in mind that listening and understanding do not mean agreement. But there is no value in jumping to a defense. If you feel you need to defend, you will be much more powerful if you first show true interest in understanding how the other person thinks and feels.
#7 Use "I" messages.
Instead of "You make me so mad!", you can say "I really get mad when you (whatever it is)!" That's a subtle shift in semantics, but it makes a difference. When you start the sentence with "You", the immediate result will be a defense. When you start with "I", the other person won't feel attacked. It's a matter of taking responsibility for your own reactions and feelings.
#8 Avoid all-or-nothing statements.
Avoid using words like always and never.
"You're always late."
"You never pay attention to me."
These statements are exaggerations and they will create a conflict right out of the gate.
If there is a pattern of behavior you want to point out, you can do so without using all or nothing words. You can say,
"I see that you didn't brush your teeth this morning before you left for school. I've noticed this has happened a number of times lately. Let's figure out what to do about it."
You've indicated the pattern, but you didn't say, "You never brush your teeth before leaving for school." If you had said that, your child would react immediately to the word "never" and start defending.
All or nothing words usually bring on a defense. Good to avoid them.
#9 Consider your listener's biases and feelings.
This goes along with receptivity levels, but it indicates a little more. Specifically, it is a good idea to know your listener's biases, especially when you are conversing about something that is a hot topic.
If you are talking to a largely conservative group of people who have strong religious leanings, then throwing out curse words as part of your conversation isn't going to go over well. They will hear those words more than what you have to say, and they won't be receptive because you have rubbed up against their value system. They may even be offended.
You can get across your point of view best if you are aware of the emotional pulse and values of the people you are speaking to.
You would address a group of single moms differently than you would a group of business executives. You might get the same information across, but your approach would be different because you would couch what you had to say in terms that make sense to the biases or interests of those two very different groups.
#10 Speak with confidence.
There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. Arrogance is self-serving and has an air of dismissiveness. Arrogance is usually hostile, even if the hostility is subtle. It has a one-up or "I know more than you" feel about it.
Confidence exudes strength, but is inviting all at the same time. Someone who speaks confidently is interesting, and draws us in. We know where they stand, but also feel they are receptive to us. You can be confident and humble at the same time.
Confidence is inclusive. Arrogance is exclusive.
Be confident in your delivery. You may make a mistake, change your mind, or modify your thoughts as you go, but you can still be confident in your ability to think, communicate, and understand.
#11 Be authentic and sincere.
Be real. Speak from your heart, say what you mean, and be yourself.
This sounds like a no-brainier, but is sometimes quite hard. We live in a very faddish culture, and it's easy to get caught up in fitting in the group you are hanging with. Entrepreneurs have a particular language. Psychologists have a different language. Parents have yet another language.
You can use the idiosyncratic language of your group, but be careful not to succumb to becoming someone you're not just to fit in.
The most compelling communication is authentic and sincere, and we can feel that on a subconscious level almost all the time. You know when someone is faking even before you think it. And you will listen to someone who is sincere more readily than someone who isn't.
Authenticity and sincerity build trust immediately, and initiate receptivity. Inauthenticity feels like manipulation.
# 12 Avoid the Big 5.
The Big 5 are :
No way no how, because all of these destroy communication and will turn the listener away. Just looking at those words brings up a negative reaction, right?
All of these approaches either involve talking "at," not "to" someone, or make the other person feel less than or unworthy. Nothing will stop someone from listening faster. These are communication barriers that should be avoided at all times.
There you have it. What are your thoughts on good communication practices? What works and what doesn't? Leave a comment.