To Communicate Well, Listen First

It all comes down to intent. It is one thing to be fully present to the other person. It is another thing to go the extra mile and seek to understand them truly. Deep listening springs from a desire to better understand a person or situation and authentically connect with them. When we listen deeply, we do so without judgment or preconceived ideas. We are open to surprise and new insights. We view the conversation as a journey of discovery.

The more deeply we give of ourselves as listeners, the more deeply the other person will be willing to share and connect with us. It is in that place of greater connection and vulnerability that true collaboration takes place.

Forbes, Jan 3, 2018, Dean Brenner, expert in persuasive communication, and is president and founder of The Latimer Group.

When we think about communication in the workplace, all too often we focus on the delivery part: what we will say, what our slides will look like and how loudly we should speak. All that’s important, but what about the other side?

Before we speak, we need to listen. And when we do speak, we need to make sure that our audience is listening to us. As with nearly every aspect of persuasive communication, there are a few key ways to improve your own listening and encourage it in your audience.

First, why is listening so important as an initial step in communication? Because it helps you understand your audience and, thus, tailor your message to their needs and concerns. By listening well — in other words, through active listening — we discover the best way to deliver the message we need our audience to hear.

As you seek to cultivate active listening, keep in mind three important ways to engage with what you are hearing:

• Fully Engage: Put away your cell phone and shut down your email. Truly focus on what is happening in this conversation. Ask questions, and listen closely to the answers. Be a thoughtful listener.

• Take Notes: For your listening to really pay off, you need to be able to remember what you’ve heard. A written log of a conversation is an invaluable resource as you move forward to analyze what you’ve learned.

• Repeat Key Information: When the conversation is over, review what you’ve heard, whether by going over your notes, discussing the call with colleagues or writing up a synopsis memo.

Asking questions — and being open to the answer, whether it is what you want to hear or not — is an important part of this process. Preparing a few questions in advance can be helpful; that way, you can really listen to the answers rather than thinking about what you should ask next. And recognizing what Tony Salvador at Intel calls “listening bias” can help make you more receptive to new ideas and fresh insights and better align you with your audience.

Besides allowing you to gather important insights into your audience, the act of active listening demonstrates your respect for your audience. In our overcrowded, high-volume world, it is easy to forget that communication isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just about broadcasting our own opinions: It’s about exchanging ideas and learning from one another. By listening well, you show your commitment to a respectful exchange. And your audience will be more likely to return that respect to you.

Which brings us to the other side of the equation: What can you do to cultivate active listening in your audience? It’s more than just crafting a gripping message, although that certainly helps. Once you’ve set the tone by demonstrating your own active listening, how else can you set up your audience to hear what you want to say? Often, it’s very simple: Change the environment.

• Consider your goal, and pick a meeting place accordingly: Do you want people to think creatively? Consider moving to a new space or making sure that everyone sits somewhere new. If you want the focus to be on your slide deck, try to set up the room so that you can engage with the audience easily while keeping your screen in easy eyeshot. Think about the space, the ambiance and how you want your audience to feel as you speak.

• Gauge the energy level, and plan ahead: If you need to meet first thing in the morning or right after lunch, bring coffee. Be aware of when people’s energy is most likely to lag, and try to offset it with additions to the meeting. And bear this in mind as you craft your message: If people have heavy eyes, they might need more attention-grabbers within your presentation to stay alert.

• Engage from the start: Think about sending a quick introduction to the audience, so they enter the room prepared to address your topic. Use a video, tell a compelling anecdote or offer a striking statistic. Show your audience that you understand what is interesting to them about your topic, and they’ll be more likely to keep listening.

As individuals and as organizations, the better we listen, the better we work. By cultivating empathy, curiosity and humility, we connect more quickly, more sincerely and more enduringly — and we communicate more clearly, more efficiently and more persuasively.


Jul 25, 2017 – Latimer Group

Communication Leadership: Learning To Assess

For years, I’ve been intimately involved in the process of training Olympic-level athletes for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, both as an athlete myself and eventually as Chairman and Team Leader for all of U.S. Olympic Sailing. At that level of competition, there is little room for error — and there is risk at every step of the process.

An athlete or team might go out to practice for hours every day and never get to the world-class level they seek. But another crew could practice for an hour one day; 10 hours the next; three hours after that — and they might win a gold medal. Why? Because that second crew is practicing one single maneuver at a time, each day, until a series of moves is perfected. They practice one element of the race on one day, a different one the next, and a different one the day after that. They have broken the race down into a series of smaller pieces, or skills. These small proficiencies, when put back together, are combined into a complete toolbox of skills.

Learning how to become an expert in anything complex — mastering an athletic skill, inhabiting a character in a play or communicating precisely — requires breaking the whole down into its component parts. As you perfect each small piece, you can begin building back up into the complex whole.

It’s easy to tell someone they need to deliver a clear, comprehensive presentation. The how of it is both harder, because it requires work and thoughtful preparation, and more achievable, because becoming clear and persuasive only requires focusing on a few key skills.

The keyword here is focus. We’ve all become used to multitasking, but when it comes to persuasion, focus and thoughtfulness are key, particularly in the first skill on the path to persuasive communication: assessment.

Focus can also mean listen. You should already be thinking about awareness: about yourself, about your audience, about your environment, about your message. You should be cultivating curiosity and empathy. Listening is key both to this awareness and to gathering the knowledge that is key to being able to assess.

It’s important to remember that listening is not a passive activity. It’s not just letting someone else talk while you figure out what you are going to say next. It’s an active, engaged mode, in which you are truly focused on comprehending and remembering what you are hearing.

My company has broken this down into what we call the three R’s of active listening:

• Respect: Before you start the meeting or take the call, eliminate all possible distractions. Shut your laptop. Mute your cellphone. Close your email. Respect the opportunity you have before you to truly listen.

• Remember: During the meeting or call, use techniques to help retain information as it is delivered. This might mean taking good notes. It might mean engaging in some dialogue during the meeting so that you are engaged and more likely to retain the information. It might mean asking a question for clarification.

• Review: After the meeting or call is over, spend a few minutes to review decisions, important information and next steps. Immediately reiterating this information, whether verbally to your colleagues or by writing up a synopsis for yourself, will help keep it fresh in your mind.

Active listening leads directly into your assessment. With the intelligence you’ve gathered from carefully listening, you can assess the communication opportunity before you.

Why do you need to assess? We’ve developed a metaphor for successful communication: The Leverage Mindset. In the same way that you can use leverage to lift objects much heavier than you could typically pick up on your own, you can use leverage to move your audience to action. But to build an effective lever, you have to be able to honestly and accurately assess all the elements that affect its power.

In our metaphor, your understanding of the audience is the fulcrum, your message is the lever and your credibility is the force you exert at your end of the lever.  Do you know your audience well enough? If not, move the fulcrum. Is your message simple and clear and valuable enough? If not, lengthen your lever. And do you have enough credibility? If not, focus on building more.

The first skill of assessment is really about information-gathering and analysis. With this tool in hand, you’ll be able to move on to crafting an effective, audience-specific message.