Be a Better Influencer by Listening More: 9 Tips
“My boss seems to rubbish all my suggestions. No matter how hard I try to explain my ideas, in the end they always get rejected.”
“At the yearly budgeting meeting, I get the impression that my department’s interest always comes last.”
If any of these issues sound familiar, the chances are that your influencing skills need some improvement.
Does it mean that you should use better arguments? Should you try to present your points more strongly in order convince others? The answer is, probably not.
Influencing by listening
In my experience, in 90% of cases like these it is not a lack of effective arguments that prevents managers from influencing others successfully, but – somewhat counterintuitively – it is a lack of listening skills.
Because in order to influence somebody’s thoughts, decisions or attitudes, you first have to understand, truly understand where he or she is coming from. You can only do this by listening to them. Only after that, when you have a better understanding of the other’s point of view, can you make your own points.
If you miss the first step – the listening – there is little hope for your own message to get across.
The higher you get, the less you listen?
For a few years I was member of a community that included a good number of top managers and CEOs of large Hungarian and international companies. How wonderful – I thought – it would be to have interesting conversations with these successful leaders, who have so much knowledge and experience. I was truly curious and open. At first.
However, the interaction with most of these leaders proved in most cases to be anything but a conversation. In most cases I was just being talked at; I could hardly get a word in edgeways.
It seemed that while all these successful CEOs were keen to share their own experiences and happy to tell stories about their own careers, they didn’t seem interested in asking any questions or listening in any way.
Did I remember any of their stories? Quite frankly, no. I lost interest in the ‘conversation’ very quickly as I wasn’t really part of it; the speaker and the listener were not on an equal footing and there was no real connection between us.
If you don’t make a connection – if you don’t listen – your own message won’t get through. And you can’t expect to influence anyone, let alone lead anyone, if your message doesn’t reach the other person.
There is a huge difference between not talking and listening
Do you remember this scene of Annie Hall?
It captures the essence of many workplace conversations. One of the parties – typically the manager – gives a speech, while the other person – the subordinate – runs an internal monologue of his own. And these two monologues don’t connect in the least.
While the person talking might think that he is influencing the ‘listener’ and assume that he or she is getting his message, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
So how can you avoid similar workplace situations? – By spending less time talking and more time listening. Establish the connection first by active listening, understand the other person’s point of view and, by that, win yourself a hearing.
And here is how.
Building a real interpersonal connection by listening effectively
- Mute your phone, shut your laptop. Give yourself a chance to focus. It’s hard to listen if you keep getting distracted by your phone beeping continuously. Make sure to minimise such distractions.
- Arouse your own curiosity. This is key! Don’t just pretend that you are listening by nodding, smiling and doing the ‘right moves’ – like Woody Allen did. Aim to really understand the other person’s attitude, be curious where she is coming from. If you listen with your full curiosity, you will find out much more about your colleague. This way you will have a better idea how to present your own points to her when it comes to your turn to speak.
- Ask questions. Not just one or two, but lots of them. And not only at the start of the discussion but all the way through. I often see bosses asking a few alibi-questions at the start of the conversation (like they learnt at the communication training!), before launching themselves into a long monologue. Make sure you remain interested in your partner’s side of the story throughout the entire conversation. And remember, if you remain curious, it won’t be hard to ask the right questions.
- Summarise: Tell them how you heard what they said. This is the most effective way of demonstrating that you are indeed listening. Summarising also helps you digest your partner’s thoughts, which allows for a much deeper level of understanding. Checking the meaning of the other person is also a good way to prevent any possible misunderstanding. In her studies, Rosenberg found that in serious conflict situations asking the parties involved to summarise what the other person has said before they present their own argument increases the likelihood of successful conflict resolution by 50%.
- Avoid monologues at all costs. If you catch yourself talking for more than a minute at a time, you are probably slipping into monologue-mode, rather than having a conversation. Even if you are explaining something complex which might take more than a minute, stop yourself regularly to check whether your colleague is still following you. Are you sure they are still listening? Give the other person some space for comments or questions.
- “What do you think?” “What’s your impression so far?” “How do you hear what I have just said?” These are some simple questions you can use check whether your partner is still with you.
- Listen out for feelings and needs also. As well as listening to the actual content, you should keep your ears open for other kinds of messages when someone speaks, such as their feelings, needs and motivations. How does he feel about this topic? What does he actually need? If you ask yourself these questions at the same time, you might make some surprising discoveries. Often you will find that that addressing these hidden messages solves conflicts more effectively than being stuck at the content level.
- Body language matters. Your body language is important in at least two ways. On one hand, your eye contact, your posture, your facial expressions show the other person that you are listening to them, that you are interested. On the other hand, keeping eye contact, and ‘using’ body language that demonstrates attention will help you stay focused. Your mind will wanders less and you’ll be able to absorb the information better.
- After the discussion, evaluate how well you listened. This will help you get even better next time. Some useful questions to ask yourself include:
- How curious was I about the other person’s views, thoughts and feelings? Did I lose this curiosity somewhere in the conversation? Where exactly did this happen?
- How often did I ask questions?
- Were there any long monologues during the discussion? Did I stop to check what my colleague was thinking?
- Was I aware of my colleague’s feelings and needs as well as the content? What feelings and needs did I identify?