Thursday, September 28, 2023

Why it’s important to listen in a world full of talkers

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By Renee Goyeneche—

To be heard is a basic human need, and data shows that people are happier and healthier when they feel understood. As such, effective communication is critical to our success and well-being in many contexts.

Advice to find your voice can be especially valuable in the workplace because your professional worth is often determined by what others think you have to offer. Organizational dynamics can be political, and those in favor have more opportunities to bolster their credibility and influence.

A consistent and knowledgeable tone allows others to recognize your talents and expertise.

However, it’s important to understand the line between contributing to a conversation and dominating it. People quickly get impatient with constant verbal processing because no one likes being held hostage while someone else elaborates their own ideas. You’re unlikely to win fans if you think along on every topic and your comments don’t add value to the conversation.

It takes a certain amount of self-awareness, but knowing when people have reached their listening limit is an important skill to cultivate. If you’re not getting constructive verbal feedback or responsive body language, it’s probably time to stop talking.

More importantly, if you dominate the conversation, you deny others a fair chance to contribute. Every team needs to understand that a collective effort lives or dies based on how successfully the members interact with each other. Yet those in leadership roles bear the most responsibility, as they are the easiest to influence or correct a team’s dynamics.

Leadership tips: listening to the silence in meetings

Managers speak more in meetings. It’s only natural, as it’s their job to ask important questions and provide direction. The same goes for anyone in a leadership position; Research supports the idea that the “highest” person in a group typically controls fifty percent of the conversation. Then the other fifty percent is up for grabs, but it’s seldom a fair distribution; some people barely speak. In addition, three segments of the workforce are more routinely quiet: introverts, women, and those who work remotely.

Now think about the fact that some people tick all three boxes. Do they have a voice?

It is difficult to examine the dynamics of meetings as you participate or lead them. However, they are worth exploring, so consider this exercise:

  • At the start of a meeting, let team members know that you’re recording the discussion for later viewing. This is easy to do thanks to technology and an everyday occurrence in Teams and Zoom meetings.
  • After the meeting, play back the session and listen objectively to who is talking most. Avoid the urge to focus on the loudest, most decisive talkers. Instead, listen to the soft voices and see how those people interact.

Now think why those people kept quiet.

The team may be discussing a project that does not require their direct involvement. They can get distracted trying to multitask during the meeting. Or maybe they came to the meeting ill-prepared, hoping no one would notice if they just kept quiet.

Another possibility? They may not feel safe psychologically, which can happen in environments where people feel ignored, patronized, or criticized when they speak up. It is also true when they work with personalities who adopt their ideas and take credit for their work.

Ask yourself these questions about the silent members of your team:

  • If you spoke to those same people one-on-one, would they make a different contribution? Being more open in an intimate setting may indicate that they feel unheard in a group discussion.
  • Do strong personalities dominate the conversation and make it difficult to participate? A common complaint from quieter personalities is, “I can’t get a word in.”
  • Are they given the opportunity to provide feedback? Direct questions like “Suzanne, what do you think?” provide a better opening for quiet personalities. A non-specific request such as “Anybody have an opinion?” will almost certainly invite the powerful personalities to keep talking.
  • Are quieter personalities interrupted or finished talking when they do speak up? If you see this, pay close attention to see if that person tries to give feedback again. Chances are they won’t. Quieter, more introverted personalities are less likely to jump into the fray as a matter of course. If they do try to speak up, they won’t repeat themselves, speak louder, or contribute more to be heard. If no one listens, they just stop talking.
  • Does your demeanor (or that of other members of the team) suggest that the case is closed before a calm personality has had a chance to weigh in? If body language or facial expressions indicate that feedback is not welcome, don’t be surprised if they don’t come up with suggestions.

If your end goal as a leader is to have a balanced, high-performing team, it is critical that all members feel a sense of psychological safety within that space. Without it, your organization loses the benefits of a think tank because team members are hesitant to raise ideas or concerns.

Also remember that the loudest talkers are not necessarily the most educated or knowledgeable. It’s important to understand the difference between people who really want to contribute and people who just want to be heard.

Renee Goyeneche: I am a writer and research editor who focuses on information that benefits women, children and families. Find me Twitter and blog on imperfect perceptions.


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