During a recent workshop on how to achieve management excellence, an interesting conversation emerged while discussing workplace communications. It all started when one of the participants asked, "How do you make people listen?"
As you might imagine, everyone in the class was eager for the answer. And even though we discussed the topic for the better part of an hour, we found that the truest answer for "how do you make people listen?" is "you can't."
Try as you might, you really can't make people listen. The argument for semantics begs attention here, in that people will "hear" you if you talk. But hearing is a passive activity that occurs whenever the ear perceives sound waves. As far as the act of listening, which is truly trying to understand another person's point of view, that is an act of the will. As such, it cannot be forced. People must choose to listen; you can't make them do it.
Because my audience was middle managers, we decided to explore "getting people to listen" from several angles. After all, not only are middle managers responsible for enabling communications "down" throughout their teams, but they must also work to capture the ear of senior managers and executives.
Perhaps the first aspect to consider in "getting people to listen" is ensuring your message is purposeful. Millions of communiques are vying for people's attention, and with all the new ways to communicate (such as sms texting, instant messaging, social media, and even "old-fashioned" email), if a message doesn't serve a purpose for an individual, it's likely to get screened out.
Know Your Audience
One way to make a message purposeful is to make sure it resonates with a person's interests and values. Granted, a message might have solid purpose for achieving a worthwhile endeavor, but worthwhile to who?
If the person you're talking to has a strong interest in financial growth and your subject is a training program you're trying to arrange for your team, if you don't show how the result of said training will increase the company's bottom line, chances are the person you're talking to won't want to listen.
That is, he won't even want to understand your message, and he will quickly refocus his mind on something else.
Therefore, the first thing to do when you want to "make people listen" is know your audience.
Set an Example
Another good idea for getting your message across parallels some advice my mentor gave me twenty years ago: Give what you want to get. In other words, if you want people to listen to you, you first must listen to them.
This idea aligns with what management guru Stephen Covey says in habit number five from his best-selling book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: "Seek first to understand, then be understood." You could also think of this as setting an example for others to follow. It really doesn't matter if you're sending a message upstream or downstream, by practicing good listening skills yourself, you're influencing the atmosphere for the type of interaction you want. Think of it this way: The likelihood of other people listening increases when you're listening well yourself.
Try to Eliminate Obstacles
Third, be aware that many obstacles can get in the way of good listening. For example, some people are genuinely poor listeners because of personal insecurities. Such people may view the act of listening (trying to understand another person's point of view) as an activity that makes them vulnerable, and so they avoid it. Here's their logic:
"If I really try to understand someone and I learn facts that disprove something I've believed, then I'm going to look rather ignorant, and I don't want that."
Another obstacle is the misguided belief that "understanding" is somehow equivalent to "agreement." Some people believe that if they acknowledge understanding on a subject, it also means that they agree with the subject. Even though "understanding" is not a synonym for "agreement," some people correlate the two, and don't listen well as a result.
While it's true that we don't have control over others' personal choices and therefore can't force people to listen, we do have control over the kind of atmosphere we create.
It's with that idea that my classroom full of middle managers summarized our conversation. No, we can't "make" people listen, but we can - and should - learn what holds someones interest, and link our subject to that topic if we need to grab their attention. We can also set an example by practicing good listening ourselves.
And, if we notice obstacles inhibiting someones listening, we can work to ensure our voice tone, word choices, and body language are "safe" and non-threatening.
So no, you can't make people listen. But you can do the above to make listening an easier choice.