How To Speak So They’ll Listen

Whether you’re an aspiring, new or established leader, there’s one skill you’ll need in buckets-full to be able to effect change and deliver results.

That’s influence.

In her recent excellent HBR article, Nancy Duarte talks about the importance of being able to empathize with your team, investors, customers and the public. To Win People Over Speak To Their Needs And Wants explores examples of how to build a capacity for empathy and then transfer this into your approach to work.

Empathy is fundamental to success as a leader because it allows us to directly see things from another’s viewpoint. This means we can be more sensitive in how we communicate. As Duarte says, ‘If people feel listened to, they become more receptive to your message. And by doing the listening, you become more informed about what they really need – not just what you think they need…’

Speaking ‘to their needs and wants’ is something I often tell clients and teams about. In order to get our message across effectively, we need to be speaking to other people in language they will understand and will actually listen to.

Here are 4 more ways to engage others in productive conversations.

Understand values.

When I was training to be a coach, we were told that people will tell you everything you need to know about themselves if you watch and listen closely enough. Our personal values and a sense of what’s important will become very clear through the way we communicate. Listen to colleagues, team members, your boss, your clients.

What matters to them? Understanding other people’s values gives you precious insights into communicating more effectively.

Wear a halo.

Once you understand someone else’s values, then you’re less likely to fall foul of the horns and halo effect. This refers to our tendencies as humans to make sweeping, often inaccurate judgements, about others based on narrow evidence.

If someone values punctuality, for example, arriving early for meetings may cause them to believe you are reliable, trustworthy, dedicated, supportive and ambitious. They may not know you’re early because you want to catch up on office gossip before the meeting, or are leaking agenda items to other departments.

Conversely, your tendency to arrive late may signal to your line manager that you’re flaky, not to be trusted and haven’t bought into what the team is trying to achieve. They may not realize that you’re the one fire-fighting last minute crises back in the office while everyone else is busy networking with the board by arriving early. This horns effect in particular can be very damaging.

In Personal Impact – What it Takes To Make a Difference, Vickers, Bavister and Smith argue that ‘We make connections between characteristics or behaviors we don’t like and then sort for more evidence to confirm the stereotype. It’s not deliberate, it happens out of conscious awareness.’

Knowing the values of the people you’re talking to will enable to you make a conscious choice to affirm them, rather than offend them. Others will be more receptive to hearing you if you wear the halo.

Take notice of their communication style.

Do people glaze over, look bored or impatient when you speak to them? If you’re someone who’s communication style is to give long, detailed, rambling explanations, then this might be the problem. You may be speaking to someone who prefers concise, crisp information, presented succinctly.

The same will be true in reverse. A big picture person speaking to a detail driven colleague may not be a match made in heaven.

The onus is on you to understand the style of the person you’re speaking to, and be flexible enough to match it. And it goes without saying that you need to have something to say that is worth listening to!

Know their agenda.

This is crucial. Understanding their priorities, what matters to them and where their focus lies will be one of the most successful strategies you have in communicating with others.

A recent client, Michelle, faced a meeting with her immediate line manager to discuss some upcoming project work. Keen to get her message across about her role, we explored what her manager would listen to. What was guaranteed to get him to prick his ears up? Couching her argument in those terms may be the element needed for success. ‘It was like I flicked a switch, he suddenly became lit up,’ she reported back after the meeting. ‘ It was like talking to a different man – amazing.’

By using this approach, you are signalling to the other person that you understand what they need too, which as Duarte asserts, ‘…will fuel your relationship with your stakeholders over the long run.’

Being able to influence others is a key skill for leadership. How would you rate your skills in this area?


I’m Susan Ritchie and I help new and aspiring female leaders to develop more impact, influence and presence. My mission is to help more women sit at the decision making tables by working with women to equip them with the confidence, skills and knowledge needed to take their talents to the top!

If you’d like to find out more about how  influential at work, then you can download your free copy of 10 Steps to Instant Influence: How to be really Seen & Heard At Work

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Susan Ritchie

Susan Ritchie is a leadership coach who specialises in working with new and aspiring female leaders, helping them develop their leadership presence, so they can lead with confidence, create the right impact and excel in their role. She’s the author of Strategies for Being Brilliant: 21 Ways to be Happy, Confident and Successful.
She can be found at www.susanritchie.co.uk where you can download 5 Steps To Developing Your Leadership Presence – and why not come and say hello on twitter @susanjritchie.

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