How to speak so that others (really) hear you


What do accountants, bankers, engineers, lawyers, marketers, project managers, and salespeople all have in common?

No, this is not the set-up of a joke! It’s a genuine question.

As a coach and facilitator, I’ve had the privilege of working with people from a diverse range of industries and disciplines (including all of the above), and I’ve noticed that we all have one thing in common. 

We all want to be heard.

Actually, we all need to be heard.

In life – and in the workplace, in particular – our ability to meet our own needs and get things done is primarily through conversations. And a critical element of an effective conversation is that you (and the other person) are heard. You can’t order your morning coffee unless the barista hears you. You can’t execute your business plan unless your team hears you. And you can’t build your reputation in your industry unless your clients and peers hear you.

And, of course, I’m not just talking about hearing as a mechanical process of converting soundwaves into brainwaves. I’m talking about the feeling we get when we know that the other person has truly understood us.

Because being heard is also a basic human need.

Author David W Augsburger said: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

While this might sound a bit intense, think back to the last time you truly felt heard. How did it feel? If you can even remember such a time, I’d say that it was probably an extremely inspiring experience. (Read more: How to inspire others to be their best)

The problem... that we are living in a world in which attention is a scarce resource – perhaps even more so than time or money. We are constantly being bombarded with information – whether in the form of conversations, emails, text messages, social media posts, advertisements, and so on. The demands on our attention are increasing exponentially while our capacity to manage these demands hasn’t really changed.

In this context, your ability to be heard depends on how well you manage two basic parameters:

1.    The other person’s capacity to hear you

2.    The other person’s willingness to hear you

If you want to improve your chances of being heard in the conversations that matter, here are some tips for managing these two parameters.

1. Capacity: Can they hear you?

It’s virtually impossible to be heard by someone who doesn’t have the capacity to hear you.

Again, this is not so much about whether they can physically hear you – although this could be the case if someone has a hearing impairment or is wearing headphones (which is fairly common in some open plan offices). This is more about whether they have the mental and emotional bandwidth to take in what you’re saying.

Have you ever tried to pour water into a glass that is already full?

(If not, try it... Just be sure to clean up afterwards!)

What happens to the additional water?

It spills out of the glass, right?

The glass of water is a metaphor for the human brain.

The human brain has a finite capacity for conscious thought – a bit like the random-access memory (RAM) in a computer. This is our “working memory”. Once that capacity is full, it’s hard for us to take in new information. The only way to free up working memory is to let go of something that’s already there or move some of the items into long-term storage (which takes time, repetition and usually sleep). 

Now, let’s assume that the mind of the average person is filled to the brim with ideas, questions, musings, plans, conversations, commitments, doubts, fears, regrets, and random songs that they heard on the radio that morning. 

How do you add your idea into that full or near-full glass of water?

Here are some suggestions for creating capacity for others to hear you:

  • Choose your timing – Growing up, we had a rule in our home. Never ask Dad for anything before he’d had his dinner. Now, it was the ‘80s, and there was undoubtedly some sort of gendered double-standard in there, as both of my parents were working. But that’s not the point. The point is that it taught me about the importance of timing conversations for when people are more likely to receive them well. It’s partly strategic and also partly a matter of respect for the other person’s psychological state. By noticing how full the other person’s glass seems to be (and even asking them, if we are unsure), we can better align our conversations with their capacity to engage in them.

  • Help them to empty their glass – If a person’s cognitive capacity is full, anything you can do to reduce that will create more capacity for them to hear you, in the same way as deleting all of those cat photos from your iPhone will enable you to take more cat photos (or is that just me?!). One way to do this is by asking or allowing them to speak first. Once they have offloaded what is on their mind, they are more likely to have space to take in what you have to say.

  • Minimise external distractions – These days, most of us live in an overstimulated, even hypervigilant, state. We are incredibly prone to distractions. These distractions can have "fill the glass" even when our cognitive load is relatively low. So if you want to be heard by someone, try speaking with them at a time and in a place where distractions are minimal. (That said, some distractions seem to operate as “white noise” and can actually help people to focus – for example, the background chatter in a busy café or the external noises when taking a “walking meeting” in a park.)

2. Willingness: Do they want to hear you?

Even if someone has the capacity to hear you, they may not be willing to do so.

This unwillingness could show up directly or indirectly in the form of:

  • rejection: when they refuse or decline to speak with you (“I’m too busy to talk”)

  • avoidance: when they won’t take/return your phone calls or respond to your emails

  • resistance: when they appear to be listening but are doing so with a closed (or even oppositional) mindset

Think about some of your recent interactions with the people around you. Aside from how busy or preoccupied you were at the time of the conversation (your capacity to hear them), what else made you more or less willing to hear what they were saying?

A person’s willingness to hear you often comes down to their assumptions about how your message or request might affect their concerns. And by “concerns” I mean the things that are important to them – their needs, drivers, interests, fears, doubts, and so on.

To improve the likelihood of being heard, it can be helpful to try and anticipate some of these assumptions ahead of time by asking yourself:

  • What concerns might be getting in the way of them hearing me? (And how could you address, or at least avoid triggering, these concerns?)

  • What concerns might make them more willing to hear me? (And how could you frame your message to better align with these concerns?)

After working with hundreds of clients to unpack the concerns that are affecting their ability to be heard, the most common one would have to be trust. If you are finding it difficult to be heard by someone, you might consider whether some work needs to be done on building the trust in your relationship. I often think of trust as a bridge that needs to be constructed between two people – and the stronger the bridge, the more weight it can carry.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes the reason others aren’t willing to hear us is that we’re not really willing to hear them. When we are too single-minded (read: forceful) about our ideas, we can inadvertently trigger the other person's resistance according to the relational equivalent of Newton’s Third Law (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”). Of course, this isn't necessarily intentional and can occur simply due to an excess of enthusiasm. To manage our impact, we might need to pour something out of our own metaphorical glass of water in order to engage in a genuine and meaningful dialogue with the other person – so that we both feel heard.

A final thought…

While there’s a lot that we can do to influence others’ capacity and willingness to hear us, our ability to be heard starts with us feeling confident (and legitimate) in what we have to say. And the more we feel heard, the more we feel encouraged to express ourselves clearly and constructively, without resorting to aggression, manipulation or other potentially destructive tactics. We become a person of influence.

But it has to start somewhere – and that somewhere is with us.

As Victor Hugo said: “Not being heard is no reason for silence.”

Now, over to you... 

What are your challenges when it comes to being heard?

What strategies have you used that make it easier for others to hear you?

I'd love to hear from you!