What Do People Listen For?

“What do the people you’re trying to influence, at work, ‘listen’ for?”

That’s one of the questions I asked attendees of a breakout session I did on leadership for the American Academy of Home Care Medicine, last month.

“Typically, 6-8 things,” I continued, as I put up the following slide:

Let me explain:

  1. The Crux of the Matter – Some people consider themselves professional problem-solvers. Others are what we might call ‘opportunity maximizers’. And how they listen to what you’re saying varies, greatly. If a problem-solver doesn’t hear a problem in what you’re saying, you likely won’t keep their attention. In that same way, if you bring a problem to be solved to an opportunity maximizer, you likely won’t get the traction you’re hoping for, either. So the key, is to match what you’re saying with what the person is naturally listening for. Another way the ‘crux of the matter’ shows itself is in listeners wanting to know if, as example, the course of action you’re recommending is supported by consensus, or not (as with a policy change) or some sort of imperative (i.e. upcoming deadline or crisis situation). Listening for the ‘crux’ is what gives them a context from which to listen further…or not.
  2. Size, Scope, and Impact – Some people like big, fat changes. Others prefer smaller and more targeted efforts. Some prefer incremental change; others prefer large-scale overhauling. For those preferring a smaller size and scope, ‘pilot’ studies and project phasing or staging enables them to ‘test the waters’ before committing more fully. But recommending that to an overhauler would likely lead to disappointment as to too slow a tempo. A similar difference can be seen with one’s preference for a project’s timing. While some people prefer to implement new initiatives ASAP, others would rather wait until it’s absolutely necessary to begin. Knowing who prefers what, and speaking to them through that ‘frame’, can most definitely improve the odds of their more actively supporting what we propose.
  3. Risks – Another key area of differentiation is how people react to risk. Some, as example, freak out at the first sign of risk and much prefer recommendations that work within existing guidelines and precedence. Others feel that anything worth doing has inherent risk so their objective is not so much to avoid risk as it is to insure that we properly identify what the risks are, and have plans to properly mitigate them.
  4. Quid Pro Quo – Yes, the old “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” is another relevant distinction in how people listen. This category has to do with inherent or underlying ‘political’ implications of what we’re proposing. In its simplest form, are we asking for them to go out on a limb for us using the promise of certain results to balance the scales; or is what we’re proposing more our returning a favor for what they’ve already done for us? Also relevant, here, is how our requests align with their work agenda. Are they in support of them, neutral to them, or complications for their spoken (and unspoken) priorities? It might not always matter, but it rarely never matters.
  5. Personal Commitment Required – This has to do with the level of support we’re looking for. Are we, as example, asking them to ‘let’ something happen? To ‘help’ something happen? Or to ‘make’ something happen? (Many a great idea has stalled because a person wasn’t ready, willing, or able to provide the level of support that was hoped for.)
  6. Next Steps – Similarly, it’s important to align, or at least clarify, what we’re specifically asking in any moment particular moment. Do we want the other person to make a decision for us…or with us? Is it to discuss an issue, brainstorm solutions, or debate the merits of a particular solution? As they say, it’s hard to be successful if you don’t know what you really want.

The larger point, here, is that the people we bring our issues to typically have definite preferences (and biases) – whether they’re consciously aware of those preferences and biases, or not. So it’s incumbent upon us to learn these proclivities as best (and quickly) as we can.

Your thoughts?

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