How to listen and communicate with the sound of silence

People want to be understood. But first, we need to be heard.

Tia Over is a partner at Spring Green Communications, advising corporate and higher ed clients on communications strategy. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her family. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

People want to be understood. But first, we need to be heard.

A few months into her 8th-grade school year, our daughter asked my husband and me if she could switch schools. Social tensions had come to a head, so we took what we thought were the right steps: met with her teachers, changed a few of her extracurriculars, and set up sessions with a counselor. Those things helped, but she was still struggling.

It wasn’t until she wrote us a letter detailing her feelings and the reasons why she wanted to switch schools that we slowed down enough to listen. Once we did, we realized that we hadn’t really heard her before. We immediately transferred her to a new school where she’s thriving academically and making great friends and memories.

This personal experience was an “Aha!” moment that underscored something I knew professionally: active listening not only validates people but leads to better outcomes.

In her Netflix special “The Call to Courage,” Brené Brown shares this learning from her experience coaching businesses on how to be more authentic: “Brave leaders are never silent around hard things. Our job is to excavate the unsaid — what is the thing that is not being said? — and that requires courage and vulnerability.”

Comms practitioners are responsible for helping leaders promote a work culture that cultivates honest and open communication — the things we say. But that is only one half of the equation. We also need to help leaders make space for the kind of listening that “excavates the unsaid.”

In our work with C-suite leaders, engineers and educators, we’ve seen when early awareness of a problem made all the difference in solving it and how problems left unsaid can cause devastation. A software vulnerability flagged in testing but ignored in maintenance causes a virus; a team without representation crafts an insensitive marketing campaign. But it’s not all bad news; when people know their leaders will listen they are more likely to bring forward the good things, too. This can look like applauding bold, unorthodox thinking that inspires a new service offering, or kudos for a colleague who made a decision that was the unpopular but right thing to do.

Here are a few pieces of communications advice for leaders who struggle with the sound of silence.

  • Stop talking. In his TIME cover story, Talking Less Will Get You More, Dan Lyons details the damage he did to his personal and professional relationships by talking too much and not listening enough. Some changes he made to address his talkaholism were to lower his voice, slow his speaking cadence, and train himself to become comfortable with uncomfortable silences. For leaders who tend to dominate the meeting, these reminders can help them take a beat to leave room for others.
  • Don’t over-prepare. This runs counter to many of our best instincts. Communicators are trained to be masters of messaging and the RTQ, but there must be balance. At times, leaders need to let a conversation unfold without thinking ahead to the next talking point. Legendary broadcaster Larry King said, “I shun too much preparation. I don’t want to know the answer to a question I’m going to ask. I like to be surprised.” King explained how the surprise provokes him to ask more questions — to get to the “why.” Good listeners ask those “tell me more” questions that invite candor and show curiosity to learn what their teams are truly dealing with.
  • Model good listening. Whether you are a college student in a lecture, an audience member at a conference, a parent at the dining room table or a CEO in a company fireside chat, active listening is a sign of respect and participation. Make eye contact. Laugh when the moment calls for it. Nod at points of agreement. Use the person’s name when you respond or ask a follow-up question. In the same way, be on the lookout for what isn’t being said. As this HBR article details, “Nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language, are usually where the motivation and emotion behind the words is expressed.”

On a drive home from school a few weeks after her transfer, our daughter said that she was proud of herself for advocating for what she knew was best for her and that she hadn’t given up even when it seemed like we hadn’t really heard her. In that moment I realized that when we listened with the intention of really understanding our daughter, she learned how her expressions of vulnerability and bravery could shape her future.

We counsel clients that a healthy and productive work culture is one where open, respectful communication results in understanding that leads to action. That begins with leaders who listen.

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