how to talk so that people listen to you

Ever feel like you’re not being heard in meetings, or that your boss never sees things your way? It might be the way you’re talking; the way you present your thoughts can have a huge impact on how much weight people give what you’re saying. In fact, fairly or not, the way you talk can sometimes carry more weight than the substance of what you’re saying.

Here are four keys for talking in a way that will increase the odds that you’re really heard.

1. Start with the upshot. Not doing this is probably the #1 way to lose people’s attention, especially if you’re talking to a busy executive. You might think that starting with the background details will help make your ultimate point clearer, but the person you’re talking to may not want to listen to 10 minutes of background before discovering what your point is. Instead, start with the upshot – in other words, the specific request that you’re making or the key piece of information you need to impart – and then fill in details only if they’re needed. Communicating this way means that the person you’re talking with will probably be better positioned to process the details (since they’ll know why they matter), and they’ll be more willing to make time to listen to you in the future (since they’ll know you’ll communicate concisely and treat their time respectfully).

2. Be clear about any action you’re suggesting.  Clearly state what outcome you’re looking for, such as input or approval for something, so that the person is clear on what they should be considering. And if you’re just filling the person in on something you think they should be aware of, say that too. Most people find it really helpful to hear “this is just an FYI for you right now” at the start of a conversation rather than waiting through the whole discussion to hear what they might be asked to do.

3. Pay attention to conversational cues. Part of communicating is observing your audience. If the person you’re talking to seems rushed or distracted, that’s a cue for you to get to the point quickly (or possibly even to ask, “Is this a bad time to talk about this?”). If the person seems lost or confused, pause and ask what you can clarify (“I’m not sure I’m conveying this correctly – is this making sense?”). Generally, pay attention to the signals the other person is giving off; in most cases, they’re there if you look for them.

4. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective. Sometimes if you feel you’re not being heard, it’s because you’re not hearing the other person. For example, if you’re pushing heard to launch a new initiative and your manager is telling you that the budget is tight right now, you’re going to come across as tone-deaf if you don’t heed that information and at least incorporate it into your thinking. Other times, the person might not be as forthcoming with their perspective and you may need to seek it out. If you’re sensing resistance, don’t keep charging ahead; pause and ask questions to try to better understand what’s going on with your audience. You’ll often get insight that will change your own thinking, or at least allow you to approach the issue more persuasively.

 

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick

    YES TO ALL OF THIS.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with people who have prepared a presentation and want to go through all of the introductory material when it’s abundantly clear that the audience needs to get to another meeting and therefore it’s time to cut down your speech to the bare essentials. The ability to recognize that and adapt on the fly is SEVERELY underrated.

    1. Sascha

      I feel like all the conference sessions I’ve ever attended are guilty of this. Background is good when it’s quick and informative, but stop taking half the session to tell me the history of your university (or company, etc.)!

      1. Ama

        I know this is late, but last week I was on a conference call where the guy we were speaking with (who has never been associated with our org) took ten minutes to tell me and my coworkers the history of *our* organization.

    2. the gold digger

      I consider one of my greatest accomplishments at my job, where I work in R&D at an engineering company, to be convincing one of the product managers not to start his presentation with an org chart.

  2. Daisy Steiner

    Man, “Does that make sense?” was one of the best phrases I learnt in terms of having effective work communications – you’re essentially asking “Do you understand?” but in a self-deprecating way so that no one feels patronised (i.e. if it doesn’t make sense, it could well be MY fault for not explaining correctly).

    1. KathyGeiss

      I have used this and see the value but I would caution against using it too much, especially for women. I have made an effort not to be self-deprecating so that people see me as the competent person I am.

      This line is effective sometimes but I wouldn’t recommend adopting it too frequently or else people will start to question whether you don’t trust yourself.

      1. Daisy Steiner

        I think it’s in the delivery. The people who I’ve heard use it to great effect said it confidently and in an ‘Are you with me?’ kind of way – sometimes just ‘Make sense?’ on its own. It never felt like they were actually being self-deprecating, just that it was a form of wording that took the sting out of being asked if you understood.

        Now that I’ve played it back in my head in light of your comment, I totally see what you mean – how it could sound insecure if delivered wrong. You’ve got to say it as a rhetorical question, almost.

        1. KathyGeiss

          Oh I can get behind that! I was misinterpreting the potential use of tone. I also support it’s use when people look genuinely confused. It gives them an opportunity to ask for clarity on specific sections (or all of it).

      2. Daisy Steiner

        And I hasten to add that here I’m mostly thinking in the context of ‘explanation’ situations, rather than requests or discussions.

      3. SJ

        I agree. I think it definitely works in Alison’s suggestion, when the audience seems confused about what you’re saying. But I try not to use it if the audience doesn’t seem confused, for the reason you said. I usually just say “Do you/does anyone have any questions?” if I’m done talking.

      4. LQ

        I would say that, at least in the way I use it, I’ve never run into this. I use this question all the time. Usually in the context of I’ve just explained this very technical thing to you, are you still with me?
        When I say it, it’s because I’m competent and chances are good they are not in whatever I’m talking to them about. They are coming to me and asking me the questions because I’m the expert.
        I’m all for not shooting yourself in the foot or making yourself out to be less of an expert, I’m not sure this does those things.

      5. Ad Astra

        I would specifically caution against the phrasing “….if that makes sense,” which is something a lot of people (myself included) tend to self-consciously tack on to the end of an explanation if they’re not met with immediate agreement or understanding. That brings it a little too far into the realm of self-deprecating, imo.

        1. LBK

          Agreed – I think there’s a big difference in tone between tacking a self-deprecating “if that makes sense” on to sentences and asking a separate, pointed “does this all make sense?” as a soft way of confirming understanding.

    2. Liza

      I also find it VERY useful sometimes to ask “Did I answer the question you asked, or have I just answered some other question?” to make sure the information I gave really is the information that was needed.

      1. Ad Astra

        +1 for “Does that answer your question?” and “Is that the information your were asking for?”

        1. Not So NewReader

          Love this. I have also used, “Am I getting this? Is this what you need to know?”
          But I do find that if I need to say these things we are headed into a more involved conversation that is going to take a bit. So I downshift in prep for that.

    3. Ann O'Nemity

      Eh, I’m not a fan. I know someone who says “You know what I mean?” frequently and I find it annoying. Especially because she usually uses it when she’s delivering an unpopular opinion or when she’s not making a convincing argument. It’s almost like she’s trying to manipulate agreement.

      1. LBK

        That’s not quite the same to me, because that’s usually a rhetorical question. “Does this make sense?” is asking specifically for confirmation of understanding, whereas I usually take “You know what I mean?” to be more like asking for affirmation of agreement or validation of an opinion.

        1. fposte

          I think it’s pointing up the difference between how different people are reading the phrase, though. It can be read as a verbal tic requesting reassurance; the way you use it, however, isn’t that but a check to make sure everybody’s still with the tour group :-).

      2. Chocolate lover

        a external presenter at a staff meeting kept saying “does that make sense?” Throughout the entire conversation. It wasn’t a technical conversation, and by the end, most of us felt insulted that she thought we were idiots.

    4. Malissa

      I use “Clear as mud?” Which gives a quick laugh and a natural opening to be asked questions or to review something.

      1. Mabel

        I ask, “What questions do you have” and wait for a count of ten. Usually someone asks a question when I get to nine. But I deliver technical training, so there are bound to be questions.

        I really could benefit from saying my point first and then getting into the background information. I’m not good with that, and my friends have learned to be patient because I will eventually pull everything together, but I can’t be doing that at work.

  3. Colleen

    I so wish I’d known about #1 before entering the workfoce proper! I am verbose by nature and I probably drove my bosses crazy prior to learning to, essentially, start with the punchline.

    1. the gold digger

      Working with a German engineer and trying to convince him that starting a sales presentation by saying that our software will integrate with other software is not the way to get a non-IT person excited about our product. “You can’t bury the lede!” I keep telling him.

  4. misspiggy

    Very interesting. But as part of starting with the upshot, make that relevant to their priorities, not just yours. Which means that if you want something important from someone and you don’t know their priorities, you need to find out or work it out in advance.

    Also, it can be tempting as a lowly person to think that senior people have magical powers. Make sure you’re asking for something that can be done by them, or they’ll be likely to stop listening straight away.

  5. Argh!

    “the person might not be as forthcoming with their perspective and you may need to seek it out. If you’re sensing resistance, don’t keep charging ahead; pause and ask questions to try to better understand what’s going on with your audience”

    I have figured out that my boss is a very cynical and negative person, so it’s virtually impossible to know whether she likes an idea or not. She brings up every possible trivial objection or detail and it sounds like these are deal-breakers to her, and it’s really disheartening. But when I ask “So you don’t like the idea?” she’ll say she does and even act surprised that I thought she was trying to talk me out of it. Perhaps she feels she has to make sure I have my to-do list in order before she can give me the go-ahead. Or she has to check off every little thing in her own mind before saying “yes.” It’s annoying, frustrating, and patronizing but it’s just the way she is. (I’ve heard this from my colleagues too so I know it’s not just me) I wish she could trust us to take care of the details ourselves (and these really are trivial and routine details most of the time, like something that costs $20 or a half-hour of someone’s time doing something that’s a regular part of their job duties anyway) but she’s a micromanager so we just have to sit and listen to this in order to go forward on anything. She’s also averse to change so we have to be thick-skinned and not get discouraged if her half-hearted sounding “okay” isn’t acted on right away. Nothing gets done around here without us little people keeping at it once we have the go-ahead. I used to think she was lying to me about giving me the okay when things weren’t followed up on, but I have chosen to believe she just forgets or has a case of institutional inertia. So I’ll bring them up again and ask whether there were objections. When we need cooperation from another department I do wonder how she transmits my ideas, since she’s so negative by nature but those other department heads have known her a long time so they have probably learned how to communicate with her.

  6. Fantasma

    This is so timely. Recently, I was in a situation where another team caused a problem and I was brought in to consult. When I recommended the exact opposite of what they wanted to hear, it was like all communication shut down on their side, despite my following these suggestions (which I’ve been practicing for a while after taking an influencing class). No amount of questions or reasoning would sway them. When my manager was looped in and agreed with me, the other team refused to listen to either of us, which was frustrating on a personal level but also the problem wasn’t really solved and will affect our team’s operations long-term.

    At that point, when you’ve tried all of these tactics and asked questions and appealed to their sense of doing what’s right for the company and customers to no avail, what is the right thing to do? In our case, I feel we should’ve ignored or overruled them, since we had that power, but it would’ve been damaging to internal relationships. Instead our “compromise” didn’t satisfy our team’s needs. So I guess what I’m asking is what is the next step if influencing fails?

    1. Argh!

      Acknowledge their discomfort with your ideas, and ask if there are any objections. They may be feeling that you’re not hearing them!

      1. Not So NewReader

        That is my guess. Time to stop talking and start listening.
        If they won’t say anything, then start at square one and bring them to the conclusion.

        “Okay, folks we are having x problem. What are your thoughts on how to fix it?” Then just stop talking. They may not have thought about it long enough to realize that Y needs to happen. OR they may tell you that Y is not going to work because “we have elephants and zebras in the parking lot every Thursday” [in other words, some weird thing that NO one has considered, yet is sooo obvious to them].

        People who are nay-sayers or just plain reluctant can make us work sharper if we let them. We learn to speak more clearly. We learn to listen closer and we learn to think about all sides of a question. For yourself, rather than become discouraged by their foot-dragging, tell yourself that they will make you sharper in some way.

        1. Fantasma

          Thanks! I’ll try this next time.

          Several days later, my manager had follow-up conversations with different people involved that also went nowhere. One thing we’re doing to avoid future problems is formalizing how we work with other teams and who makes the final call. Our teams overlap on the edges of some of our responsibilities and it’s caused a lot of confusion in the last few months.

  7. Mimmy

    I’m definitely guilty of #1!

    I struggle with #3 sometimes. A part of that is because of my vision, I may miss some subtle cues, especially if I’m speaking with a group of people or if I’m nervous. What specific things should I look for?

    Also, do any of you get so nervous when speaking at work that it seems like nothing is coming out coherently?

    1. Cordelia Naismith

      What specific things should I look for?

      Body language is a big one, here. If they keep glancing at their watch, they’re busy and you should cut to the chase. If they aren’t making eye contact with you or if their body language is defensive (arms crossed, for instance), they’re shutting you out or not really listening.

      But if they’re body language is more open — if they’re leaning forward slightly, nodding, making eye contact, etc — then they’re engaged in what you’re saying and are following along.

      1. Ad Astra

        In my experience, these signs can be a lot more subtle than expected. I’ll get discouraged when I think nobody was listening to what I was saying, but later people will come tell me they were really interested in my comments about XYZ.

      2. fposte

        Although that’s an interesting point–those can be hard things to see for somebody whose eyesight isn’t great.

        1. OhNo

          That is a great point. Is there any way to get them to talk a little so you can hear their tone of voice? Things like boredom, confusion, impatience, etc. can all come across pretty obviously in tone – and that way you wouldn’t have to rely on eyesight alone to interpret those cues.

          1. Mimmy

            Unfortunately, I also have a slight hearing impairment / auditory processing issue, and tone of voice is probably my weakest area. Luckily, my vision isn’t SO bad that, with the right lighting and room setup (including acoustics), I’m usually okay. Plus, I have my awesome digital hearing aids where I can just change the microphone settings :)

            I’m probably not giving myself enough credit…Over the years I think I’ve figured out ways to fill in things I miss, and just not realized it.

            Thank you OhNo for your suggestions. I can tell you and I have a lot in common.

      3. Rat in the Sugar

        Eh, I’ve found in public speaking that an audience frequently looks bored even when they aren’t. I figure as long as people aren’t doodling or texting they’re engaged regardless of whether they’re looking at me or crossing their arms. Plus, I personally cross my arms constantly due to being one of those people who’s always cold, so I usually just ignore that in others. Might just be temperature!

        1. Pennalynn Lott

          Yep, I’m an arm-crosser just because it’s a more comfortable position for my one bad shoulder. It actually means I’m engaged and OK with whatever you’re saying.

          1. Jaydee

            I cross my arms because I feel really awkward if my hands are left hanging at my sides, which will distract me from the conversation. Or I’ll start absentmindedly biting my nails, messing with a loose thread on my skirt, just fidgeting in general. Arms crossed really is the least rude of my options.

        2. Aussie Teacher

          I actually listen better when I’m doodling/playing something mindless like Solitaire… I don’t do it at work because of the perception that I’m not listening, but just wanted to throw it out there that the doodlers may still be engaged :)

        3. Jaydee

          For some of us, doodling means we *are* paying attention. If I’m forced to sit still and listen with nothing else to do for more than maybe 20 minutes (nothing to write on or fidget with, and not an interactive conversation), it had better be really exciting or I will probably be asleep, daydreaming, or plotting my escape.

      4. Sleepy McToiletboots

        And if you’re the one giving the nonverbal cues to the speaker, be aware that they can not only be ignored, but completely misinterpreted. When I was in the military, I moved from one job where we were constantly under deadline and often had to triage which of the many absolutely super-duper top priorities would be addressed that day to a job where the enviornment was… not that at all. At the new office, it was a serious breach of protocol to verbally ask someone speaking during a meeting to speed things along, or even to readdress something that didn’t quite make sense. Often in a meeting with a speaker who was far into a digression I’d look at them with what I thought was a desparate, pleading expression only to have it interpreted as “Oh, someone’s paying attention to this! I’ll expand further on this unnecessary point!”

    2. Argh!

      “Also, do any of you get so nervous when speaking at work that it seems like nothing is coming out coherently?”

      Nope. I deserve to be there and my opinion is no more useless than anyone else’s.

    3. LBK

      I find owning your incoherence helps with it sometimes. I’ve said things like “Sorry, I’m not making sense today!” (with a big smile) and usually people either chuckle, which gives me a moment to pause and recollect my thoughts, or more frequently people say “Oh no, I’m totally following you!” which is a nice confidence booster that allows me to continue.

      (This depends on the audience, obviously – I wouldn’t use it in a more formal presentation or around people I don’t speak with a lot, but I’ve done it in meetings with my coworkers and direct managers.)

      1. Not So NewReader

        Oh, my yes. Sometimes just saying “excuse me” or “let me try that again” is enough to help with that stumbling feeling. Remember a lot of the awkwardness could be just a feeling and others do not notice. However, if you want to try this technique I have found it to be like a huge weight gets lifted off my shoulders. I just admit the mistake and press forward.
        I would not do that more than once in a single session, though.
        This is something about owning a mistake out loud that is liberating. I have seen it in myself and others, once the correction is made, they relax and continue on without problems. It might work for you, too.
        As an aside, some times we are so busy watching our own mistakes, that we never notice other people’s. When you are not speaking, watch others. Watch how they handle their stumbles, lost words and so on. I have found it helpful to realize that other people are going through the same thing I am.

        1. Mimmy

          As an aside, some times we are so busy watching our own mistakes, that we never notice other people’s.

          That is so true!!

      2. OhNo

        I definitely agree with owning your incoherence. I run into that problem a lot, since my mouth runs a lot slower than my brain and everything tends to come out as a jumbled mess when I’m wound up.

        My favorite way to deal with it is to repeat whatever I just said – correctly and slowly – and follow with something lighthearted like, “I can talk today, I promise!” That usually gives me enough time to get my brain and mouth on the same page again, and it ensures that everyone understands whatever comment I messed up the first time around.

        1. Mimmy

          YES!!! My mouth and brain aren’t always on the same page either, lol! I like that technique – it could be a way to remind myself to just b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Take that pause and let the mouth catch up.

    4. Not So NewReader

      My friend does not see well. She just point blank tells people that they need to say what is on their minds. “I cannot see you that well, so if you gesture, I might miss the gesture.” The cool part about my friend is that she does not break stride when someone tells her that they do not need her to expand on something. “OK, good”, she’ll say and just end the topic or conversation whichever is appropriate. I think this works because she just accepts people’s candor as part of the conversation, it does not upset her in the least. People see she is not rattled by their openness. In a group, she keeps her comments to the punchline. If people want more, they will turn to her and ask.

      From my perspective, I am impressed that I can tell her things that seemed rude or “off” to be saying. I started asking her when she needs me to mention something and when she does not need me to mention something. She answers me. This helped me.

  8. Ad Astra

    I have a hard time pulling out the important information from a verbal conversation (it’s easier for me to parse written directions), and it helps so much when people follow these tips. First tell me what you want me to do, THEN tell me why or how or whatever else.

  9. DebbieDebbieDebbie

    Oh yes! How I love starting with the Upshot and how I appreciate when others do so with me. The most intelligent people that I work with hold an incredible amount of info in their brains and have explained to me that when I start with the upshot, they can quickly access the area in their brain that will help solve the problem. It revolutionized how I communicate with others and has changed how I am perceived at work.

    1. Theguvnah

      I love the way you just explained that – accessing the area in their brains- it really is true. This tip is one of those things I know but sometimes forget that I know and therefore am not as consistent about it.

  10. AyBeeCee

    The article assumes that you have the floor. What if the meeting is conversational style? For example I was in a small meeting (six people from three or four departments) talking about some internal software and process improvements. I kept trying to jump in with opinions and to represent my department but kept getting talked over by my coworkers, one of whom was obviously thinking at the same time he was (sort of) listening and just started talking when he had a thought to share. He was the most senior person in the room and had a naturally loud speaking voice so it was easy for him to talk over anyone else. Thankfully one of the other people in the group was able to use her cat-herding skills to be sure everyone got a turn, and, to his credit, when it was pointed out to the one guy that he had talked over other people he apologized and listened to the speaker intently.

    I tend to be a quiet person to begin with, so while I noted the cat-herding skills I don’t know that I’d be able to draw attention to myself to get everyone else to quiet down short of raising my hand elementary school style. Thoughts?

    1. LBK

      I’d practice counter-interjecting if you get spoken over with something like “Sorry Bob, I just want to make this one point before we move on to something else and I forget” and then keep talking – don’t wait for him to speak over you again. Alternatively, I always jot down questions that come to mind in the fray of a conversation that I can’t break into and then the next time there’s a natural pause, I jump in ASAP and say “Can we go back to X for a second? I had a question about…”

      If those don’t come naturally to you as a quiet person and these aren’t things that absolutely need to be discussed mid-meeting but could be brought up afterwards, you can also do a follow up email to the group involved: “I was reflecting on the discussion about X from today’s meeting and wanted to clarify the point made about…”

        1. AyBeeCee

          It’s a reflex – the easily distracted part of my brain defaults to the “not talking” setting because I want to hear what the interrupter is saying. I’m working on it though!

      1. Ad Astra

        I am sometimes guilty of talking over people (I’m sorry!) and I agree that the best thing you can do when I interrupt you is to keep talking. Nine times out of 10, I’ll shut up and listen. Sometimes my ADD brain forgets to wait its turn before I start talking; it’s not 100% involuntary, but it’s pretty close. I’m getting better at reining it in.

        Also, get comfortable saying things like “I have a question!” and “Can I interrupt really quick?” when someone is dominating the discussion and you can’t get a word in edgewise.

    2. Ultraviolet

      I’d really like to hear more advice about this too–specifically, keeping “the floor” in a conversational meeting where interruptions are the norm, and figuring out when to speak in a conversation that’s moving really quickly such that there aren’t really pauses.

      1. Ultraviolet

        Fair enough if anyone’s advice is “stop overusing the word ‘really’ and maybe more people will listen” ;)

    3. Hannah

      In the moment, I just try to look like I’m bursting to say something and make eye contact with whoever is speaking, so that once they finish their thought they will let me jump in with my point next. It works for me with most people because I have a pretty expressive face.

      The long game is to build a reputation of being knowledgeable about the issues and making thoughtful comments and suggestions during meetings. If you can do this, you will never have to fight for the floor, because everyone will be looking to you to hear what you have to say. I’m quiet too, but sharing the best insight is better than being the person with the loudest voice. I don’t speak up until I have something important to contribute and I don’t disagree or contradict what others have said unless I am sure I’m right..

    4. Not So NewReader

      Not a direct answer to your question- but to help myself, I keep a note pad next to me. I write down the things I want to say. This usually looks like a few words that are a memory jog. The speaker may notice you are jotting stuff down, too, and become curious about what you noted. This might make the speaker more inclined to pause.

      I am a big fan of autopsies. On the way home from work go over each meeting. Find one thing that you did that you liked and keep it as your own. Find one thing that you did that you did not like and think about how to do it differently. Don’t make endless lists of what you did right or wrong. Just pick one thing for each and focus on that. Next time, pick something else and focus on that. Go one thing at a time but keep doing this exercise for a while until you start to feel differently about what you are doing. You will probably just forget to do the exercise after a bit- because you won’t need it so much.

  11. Marilyn

    Will definitely give this a read. In one of my previous jobs, I was treated poorly by management and even alienated and excluded from events, activities and everything, I figure it had to do with the way I was communicating with people. I think when I talk, I give too much self-doubt.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Or maybe you were working with idiots.
      You don’t say if this is happening now. I am thinking probably not near as much or not at all.
      Always remember if someone asks your opinion on something it is OKAY to ask a question or two before you give your opinion, if you need to know additional information. Matter of fact, asking good questions can be an art by itself.

  12. Almond Milk Latte

    I work remotely, and I’m usually the only non-VP on my meetings, and while I’m not as important on paper, I’m the only one with my ears on the ground, so my input is necessary/useful. Sometimes I can’t sneak in a word at all on our calls. I’d love to see what advice someone has for managing this while on conference calls.

    1. RR

      Do your meetings have an agenda? Can you make sure you are on it? Even if you are trying to weigh in on a different topic, if your name is in front of people on the agenda, it’s a helpful reminder of you, your position, and that you likely have useful input. Can you get one or two allies who will chime in and ask if you have something to say?

      1. Almond Milk Latte

        Oooh, good idea! That could work for one of my meetings where we do have an agenda.. Not so much for some of the others, unfortunately. Agendas in general would definitely help us out.

  13. SallyForth

    I get really excited and pumped up about new ideas and I know that when I do, I tend to talk too much. That means that when I have something important to say, it loses its impact because it’s in a long string of other thoughts. Now I am careful in meetings to take note of when others have spoken and to save my contributions for the things that matter. That way, my ideas don’t get lost. It took me about 20 years to figure this out!

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