Getting People to Listen

By Barry Maher

From time to time when I’m talking to attendees after doing a session for managers, I’ll notice one person hanging back a little, waiting for everyone else to clear the room.

Then he or she shuffles up, gives me a little embarrassed smile and says:

“I don’t really have any real issues with the way I manage. My boss thinks I do but I really don’t. The problem is that my people just don’t listen to me. So aside from firing everybody and recruiting in an entirely new staff, how do you get people like that to listen to you?”

“People like . . . ?”

“People who are so . . . People who just don’t pay attention.”

My first suggestion, which always has to be delivered tactfully, is that the easiest way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them. Think of the last time someone listened to you, really listened to you. Think about the two-way rapport that developed and how you felt about that person. Weren’t you far more likely to pay attention to them when they were talking?

Think of how you felt the last time someone didn’t listen to you. And how you felt about that individual. Particularly if that person was your boss.

Since we all want people to listen to us, here are a few other quick tips.

For important conversations, try to pick the right time and place: when the person is most likely to be receptive, when distractions will be at a minimum.

Give them a reason to listen at the very beginning of the conversation. Start with an interest-creating remark, ideally one that highlights the benefit to them of focusing on what you’re about to say:

► “Here’s something that will save you 10 minutes every time you do that job.”
► “In order to get that raise we discussed, there are three things you’ll need to accomplish.”
► “We’re still finding pieces of the last person who tried to do it that way.”

When appropriate, ask them questions and of course actually listen to their answers. (Here’s one of my favorite, sweeping, all-purpose, general statements: When in doubt, in any business situation, anytime, with anyone, anywhere, on any planet, ask a question.)

Use examples, anecdotes and stories to make your points clearer and to increase interest. Examples like, “We’re still finding pieces of the last person who tried to do it that way.”

Consider enumerating key points. “You’re going to have to master a six step process. First . . .”

Pause occasionally. Or forget about being listened to after the first three or four sentences. Think about those directions you got the last time you were lost out in the country:

“Can’t miss it. You just go straight ahead, cross the bridge, take a left at the old mill. Not the lumber mill, the old wheat mill. You head north for about six miles until you come to the graveyard. You don’t do anything there. But once you reach the lot where the old general store used to be . . . it’s not there no more, it’s just a lot . . . there you take a medium hard right. Not a real hard right: that’s old Mrs. Allen’s driveway and she’s got a shot gun. Don’t worry, she don’t see so well anymore. Hasn’t hit a damn thing in months. Maybe one Jehovah’s Witness. So you take a medium hard right. Another five miles you take a quick left, your second right, and then your third or fourth left. Maybe your fifth. Head on for a piece, maybe seven miles more and about then you better find somebody else to ask or you could get lost.”


1)    Gives the other person a chance to absorb what you’ve just said;2)    Keeps them from feeling like you’re trying to run over them;

3)    Provides them with an opportunity for input. Of course, you are taking a risk that someone else may actually get to talk, at least for a moment.

If it does nothing else, pausing gathers attention. Something different has happened. That stream of things I haven’t been listening to seems to have stopped. What’s up?

Lastly, and perhaps above all: if you want to be listened to, be concise and to the point. (As unlike the driving directions cited above as possible.) That could even entail thinking through what you’re going to say beforehand: maybe even working out four or five talking points. If the message is important enough, you could even rehearse.

Just remember that if your explanation of the task at hand begins with the founding of the company or the story of your birth, no one’s attention is going to stick around for the conclusion.

© Copyright 2013, Barry Maher, Barry Maher & Associates, Las Vegas, Nevada


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