Can You Hear Me Now?

We want people to listen to us. We want to be understood. We want to be seen and appreciated as our best selves. Why doesn’t it happen? What goes wrong?

And old-fashioned fountain pen.

To be heard, you have to speak in a way your intended audience can hear. If your audience doesn’t understand, most likely you are not connecting. Not using the metaphors, vocabulary and logic they can understand. Last week, I sat next to someone who had never seen a fountain pen. I was writing with one at the time. The person did not ask questions or think I was smart or clever–not having seen one made me someone to doubt and possibly fear. We like people who are like us. We doubt people who aren’t like us.

Why can’t we just be ourselves? Because if we ask our audience to work too hard–to go out of their normal train of thought, to veer off into a new way of thinking–they won’t. They’ll do what they always do and skip to a conclusion they are comfortable with, rather than work at coming to a new conclusion. Because audiences do what’s easiest for them.

If you want your cats to hear you, open a can of cat food. It’s a sound they are familiar with, one that leads to a reward–food. So they listen. If you want a colleague to listen to your ideas, you will have to explain it in a way she can understand each part. Is she a big-picture person? Start with the overall outcome, then move to details? Is she a process person? Start with how this project will work, then go to results. Is she a micro-manager? Start with some details, then grow the vision into a big picture.

What if you don’t know what kind of person your colleague is? Ask. Going for clarity always makes it easier to understand. “Would it be more helpful if I start with the big picture?” is a question that asks for help. You might want to give your listener a choice. “Which is more helpful, starting with a big picture or starting at details and building to the big picture?” Most people know what makes sense for them, and will be pleased you asked. They will then be ready to listen to you.

Sure, it’s easier to explain it the way you like best. But that won’t get you heard. Because being heard comes after being a good listener.

–(c) 2008. All rights reserved. Quinn McDonald writes about communication topics and runs workshops on business communications. She is also a certified creativity coach. See her work at