Life

How to Get People to Actually Listen to What You’re Saying

Master these expert techniques and you'll break through more often.

Man with glasses and beard listening to someone speak
David Lees/Getty Images

It’s the universal wish when we open our mouths. We just want to be heard. And really, it shouldn’t be that complicated, although it gets that way, usually by our own doing. We pick the wrong time or place, forgetting other people have lives and busy schedules.

Still, we proceed, trying to force our message on unreceptive ears. We start raising our voices, interrupting, and finishing other people’s sentences, none of which has ever been taught in Effective Communications 101.

While saying something as simple as, “Is now okay to talk?” can solve some problems, the larger issue centers on expectations. It’s not solely men, but a lot of men certainly believe that when they have something to say, it must be said immediately.

“By default, men get the stage. They demand to be listened to,” says Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.

That attitude doesn’t set a welcoming stage. While there are practical things to do to effectively communicate, the bigger shift comes in adjusting your approach. Rather than see an interaction as being listened to, it’s better to view it as an exchange between two people, either of whom can influence the direction. With that mindset, the pressure to get everything out dissipates.

How do you get to that place? Paying close attention to the following can help.

1. Be Willing to Listen

This shouldn’t be surprising. If you want someone to hear you, you have to do the same. Sure, it’s polite, but you’re not merely reciting words and then leaving. The other person is part of it. They need to feel like a part of it, and even if you’re already close, there needs to be a connection for that moment.

“There’s no better way to do that than to listen to someone else,” says Bill Rawlins, professor emeritus of interpersonal communications at Ohio University.

And it’s not easy, because you really, really, really want to say something. There’s no secret about what to do. It’s discipline and reminding yourself to not speak and catching yourself when you start.

“It’s always a dedication,” Rawlins says.

2. Watch Out For “Kitchen Sinking”

Sometimes you’re not making your point because you haven’t figured it out, so you just say everything in a rambling mess. Mikucki-Enyart calls this “kitchen sinking.” But when you practice out loud, you’ll hear the words that matter and the ones that can be cut. If you’re heated, repetition gets you used to the emotion and lowers the intensity so the first time you say something is not the first time you say something.

And if it helps, have notes about issues you want to hit and reminders to stay calm or not interrupt. Be upfront and let the person know that you don’t want to forget anything. You’d do all of this prep for a business meeting and no one would question it.

“I don’t know why we expect our relational communications to fly by the seat of our pants,” she

says.

3. Learn to Pause

Part of effective talking is not talking. Yes, you want to give the other person the floor, but even before that, it’s allowing the other person to take in your words and gauge what your message means to them. Again, it’s a kind of listening and involves “not trying to formulate your next sterling moment in the conversation,” Rawlins says.

But you can use the pause as well. It’s your chance to consider what’s being said, which can reshape what you share. Just let the person know that you’re thinking. Silence can make people feel uneasy and an inhale can come off as frustration or boredom when it’s just taking in air. If you see the same from the other person, just ask, let them clarify and remove unnecessary wonder.

“It’s perception checking,” Mikucki-Enyart says.

4. Embrace the “Vivid Present”

Men tend to be definitive. Michael Jordan is the best. The Godfather is the greatest movie ever. But conversations are live and involve you and the other person. Practicing helps gets you comfortable, but it’s not a scripted event. More than acknowledging and accepting that, embrace what the two of you share.

Rawlins says that Austrian philosopher Alfred Schutz called that space the “vivid present”. Make a comment about the weather, wall colors, or traffic, whatever is connecting the two of you right then and there, and then the conversation is no longer about fighting for time or to be heard.

“It’s neither mine nor yours,” Rawlins says. “It’s between us.”

What helps is to ask questions along the way. What do you think about what just happened? How do you feel about what I just said? People usually like to get questions. They allow them to talk, and these, which can’t be shut down with a “yes” or “no” answer, are an invitation to stay involved.

5. Treat Each Conversation As Its Own

Communicating skills aren’t inherent. “It’s not a trait,” Mikucki-Enyart says. They can be learned and bolstered, but each time you go into a conversation, you’re going into that specific conversation. It takes a brand new focus and attention to detail. You may need to vent. You might want advice. The same goes for the other person. It’s like how you’d approach sports or music. It means bringing the effort while reading what the environment is like because what worked yesterday might not work today.

“You need to re-consecrate yourself,” Rawlins says. “You have to show up. A lot of it is will. Every moment has a possibility of showing something to us.”