Understand to be Understood

Need some ideas on how to be better understood as a leader? The key is to first work hard on understanding your audience; then tailor the presentation of your ideas to what you discover. Here’s how.

What is Impactful Communication?

Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father was quoted as saying: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Impactful communication is about listening and expressing yourself in a way that creates insight and understanding, builds trust and inspires people to take action.

When you listen to and understand your audience you can adjust your tone, language and emphasis to capture their attention. You can then teach, involve and inspire. You can influence. You can coach.

Here’s a quick test for you. No prizes, I’m just looking to make a point. Keep your eyes firmly fixed along this text and answer this question. Who was this quote from? Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”

The point is that impactful communication is about listening and expressing yourself. Listening is not just casual listening, it’s listening to understand. Understand to be understood.

Your next test is: what is the title of this blog post? You got it, it was at the end the previous paragraph.

By prompting these mental gymnastics I’m getting you to read to understand. You can always take your time to read to understand. You control the pace. You get to recap, reflect and reconsider your first impressions. As you re-read a section of text or even a whole book new messages appear. You get new insights into what was in the author’s mind. If the author is clever, you take their words and hold them up to your own map of the world, or reason for reading the book, and take your own understandings and insights from them. That is your test for me. How am I doing so far?

First Understand

Understand your audience so you can tailor both your message and your style of presentation to their needs, their culture, their level of understanding of the subject and their expectations of you.

Your goal is to communicate with your audience, not at them. To encourage audience involvement. How will you do this?

You ask questions – direct, open, closed or rhetorical – then listen actively and deeply to their responses. The challenge is you (in your native language) are capable of listening to five times the number of words per minute than the normal rate of speech (700 versus 125). If you are not ‘active’ or attentive your mind wanders.

There are techniques to get more understanding from what people are saying: verbal/non-verbal affirmation (saying “ah, ha” and nodding); hearing beyond the words (holistic listening – hear the words the opinions and the feeling behind them, what is said and what is not said); clarifying (“what I think you are saying is …”); encouraging (“that’s interesting – tell me more” or “go on”); sum up and feedback (“If I could summarise you key points back to you ….”).

Then Be Understood

How do you know if you are being understood? You’ve put in the time and effort to understand your audience – this may be a group of people or one individual. You’ve organised your ideas and tailored them to your audience in terms of content, style and pace of delivery. You’ve adopted the principle that less is more. Pare down what you think you should say to arrive at the key points. You can always elaborate later.

Positive indicators. How will you know your communication is working and people are understanding? Here is a checklist:

  • Right first time – Your audience comprehends your message first time. This is evidenced by no mistakes, no rework no need for further explanation.
  • Prompt response – Your audience responds promptly to your ‘calls for action’. This is evidenced by things getting done to mutual satisfaction.
  • Attentive listeners – You notice people are listening and understanding. This is evidenced by them nodding, smiling, paying attention and giving you affirmative feedback.

‘You can learn from your mistakes’ has become a well-known and accepted saying. This is probably only because others are more willing to point out our mistakes than give us praise for what we do well. I think the most positive model to work from is to reflect on what went well. Hence my checklist of positive indicators.

You’ve had two tests in this blog post. Now a task. Please post me your comments on what, in your experience, are contra-indicators of impactful communication. What tells you that you have not been understood? I’m very happy to get more positive indicators too. Use the Leave a Reply box below.

Dedication. This is my very first post on this blog. I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Domingos Silva jnr. First of all for encouraging me to become a ‘blogger’. And secondly for suggesting the topics for my first few blogs. Obrigado Domingos.

Further reading see: Communicating with Impact in the Leadership Competencies section.

To comment about this article please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ box below.

Author: Trevor Sherman

Trevor Sherman: Author, Blogger and Coach. What do I do? I develop leadership training material and personal learning modules. I am the owner and operator of this Blog. I coach senior executives for their development and role transition. I am based in Northamptonshire UK and operate globally - in person and through technology.

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