Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council January 3, 2018.
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.