Focus On What People Hear, Not What You Say

Imagine your boss gathers you and your colleagues in a room and starts to speak. “This is going to come as a shock, but our investors need to increase their profits so we are cutting everyone’s salary by 35%, effective immediately.”

You look around the room. Is this a joke? Your boss looks dead serious. Your colleagues appear to be terrified. 35% is nearly half your income. Can you live on that little money?
You have a vague sense that your boss is still speaking.

“In addition, we need to make some changes in our process, which I will explain in detail right now…”

S/he then begins to explain the process changes.

How likely are you to remember any of the changes that your boss outlines? I’d argue the probability is close to zero. Your brain will be spinning, trying to consider the implications of taking a 35% cut in your income. You’ll be shocked, angry, frightened and confused.
In other words, you won’t hear a thing your boss says.

This is the root of most human failures. It’s why projects fail, companies struggle, and careers stall. Effective communication is not about speaking in a clear and memorable way, or any other tactic for pushing words out of your brain towards another human.

Effective communication means sharing information when – and in a manner – that helps other people be ready, willing and able to process that information.

For example, one rookie mistake that many speakers and workshop leaders make is to say, “Save your questions until the end.” But anyone who has a question will become mildly obsessed with getting the question out, and won’t be listening. A far better strategy is to get questions out early, so people know they are being heard.

Time after time, I hear leaders lament, “What is wrong with my employees? I tell them exactly what to do, and they don’t do it.”

If you barge into someone’s office and bark orders at them, you are not telling them what to do. You are squawking like a chicken, instead of communicating.

Great communicators focus on more than words. They pay attention to the time and place of an interaction. They choose different words for different audiences. They use visual aids, or music, or repetition, or games, or anything else that helps other people understand and absorb information.

When you judge your own communication abilities, you need to measure what people are hearing, understanding and remembering. For example, some people use social media to share their ideas not just to reach a wider audience, but rather for the ability to read comments and see whether people actually understood their message.

To advance your career, hold yourself to this higher standard. Fortunately, I can offer a tip that will make this much easier:

The better you listen, the easier it is to get others to listen.

By listening to others, you can understand their needs, anxieties, aspirations and circumstances. You can judge when it will be productive to talk versus when doing so would be a waste of time. You also can understand whether they are focused or distracted.
So start by listening yourself, and then focus your energy on making sure that others learn to do the same.