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Talking That Gets Heard

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 “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still,
to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

When we speak to other people we assume they hear what we are saying. But often, our words are communicating one thing and our facial expressions or gestures are communicating another; or perhaps the listener has heard those words before in a different context and is applying past experience to the present situation. There are a myriad of unconscious acts we do that can interfere with communication and block what actually gets heard.

So if our communication can be unconscious, how do you avoid the pitfalls of face-to-face communication so what you’re saying gets heard?

Organize Your Thoughts

Audiences find it easier to follow information that moves from the simple to the complex or from the general to the specific. Limiting a conversation to only one or two topics at a time and resisting the urge to jump around to different topics ensures that the other person has the chance to focus. If you try to address every concern in one conversation, you will evoke too many emotions (including a feeling of being overwhelmed) and encounter resistance.

Your audience may consist of people with different levels of understanding and different personal agendas. You must consider the least knowledgeable and least receptive person when organizing your thoughts—for example, removing acronyms that only a long-term employee would recognize or quickly reviewing background data to bring everyone up to speed.

If you are not sure that you understand someone else or believe they may have misunderstood you, ask questions. You cannot assume what the other people mean or hear, any more than you would want them to make assumptions about you. Questions that begin with “I’m not sure I understood…” or “I’m curious what…” are inoffensive pathways to better understanding. Be careful of questions that begin with “Why did you…” or “How could you…” because they automatically put people on the defensive.

TIP: More talking does not equal more communication. The best face-to-face communication goes two ways, with plenty of listening by both parties.

Watch Your Words and Tone

Certain words have meanings that go beyond the word itself. “I want you to…” is a much stronger statement than “I would appreciate it if…” or “You might find it helpful if….” If your audience reacts in a way you do not understand, the chances are that you have used words that generate the wrong emotional impact—whatever your intent, the audience heard something else.

If there are any vital differences between what you said and what was heard, you might try:

  • Paraphrasing; that is, repeating the information in different words
  • Showing rather than telling, including demonstrating, diagramming, or writing down the information
  • Explaining the goal and asking the other person how they would get there.

Note: Communication is the responsibility of the person doing the talking, NOT the person listening. If someone didn’t pick up on what you were laying down, that’s on you and you can fix it.

Both positive emotions (compassion, joy) and negative emotions (sarcasm, repressed anger) can come through in tone, rather than words, and change how an audience reacts to what you are saying. Being mindful of your energy is vital because the audience will pick up on it. Staying positive, respectful, and confident is important, even with people you dislike.

Pay Attention to Facial Expressions and Gestures

Facial expressions and gestures enhance conversations, provide clues to meanings, and either support or contradict our words. Take a simple eyebrow lift. It can show curiosity about what someone is telling you or indicate a level of suspicion or skepticism. The only way for someone to truly know what facial expressions and gestures mean is to ask for clarification. When that doesn’t happen, assumptions are made, stories are told, and communication breaks down just a little more.

It can sound as simple as, “You’re raising your eyebrows. I’m curious if that means you’re wondering about something or if you’re surprised by what I’m saying?” Make sure that however you ask, there is no judgment, accusations, or interpretations of your own. Genuinely come from a place of wanting to be heard.

TIP: If you want your audience to react in a certain way, be cognizant of your own expressions and gestures as well as those of your audience. They typically mirror what is coming at them.


When your audience feels heard, they are more likely to follow your suggestions, advice, or position. Listening is not passive. It requires active participation and is an essential part of face-to-face communication.

A study reported in Harvard Business Review used a 360-degree assessment to measure the listening skills of 3,492 participants and discovered why some people were considered better listeners than others. They found that great listeners ask related and probing questions, are supportive rather than critical, and give appropriate suggestions. Those listeners not only paid attention but reacted in the spirit of sharing, creating a dialog.

Video Conferencing

Video allows face-to-face communication across vast distances. It is efficient and cost-effective, since it eliminates travel time between locations, and it enables screen sharing, which can boost productivity. But effective communication over a video conference requires some important adjustments:

  • Experiment with different camera positions. Subtle clues may be lost when people are on camera, depending on how the camera is positioned.
  • Choose a more stationary method of presentation. Moving around is harder and may be more distracting.
  • Establish protocol. The rules over who is talking and how to interrupt are not as clear in video conferencing and, again, subtle clues may be missed.
  • Check in often to determine the course of the conversation. People may feel freer to say “no”: walking away from a conversation is easier during a video conference when you can, in effect, just hang up or tune out.
  • Make sure IT is handy. Technical problems are rampant with video conferencing and largely absent from face-to-face communications.

Key Takeaways

Know what you want from face-to-face communication and organize your thoughts with a basic objective in mind. Adjust your content, word choice, tone, and gestures to engage your audience and ensure that they have heard you correctly. If you approach face-to-face communication as a power struggle, your emotions will interfere with the audience’s ability to hear and understand. Good communication begins with listening.

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