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How Can I Help You If I’m Not Listening to You?


“Andy, you’re not listening to me, bro!”

I heard this accusation delivered in the hall outside my office in a very tense tone by a fellow with a very tense face. There’s a mortgage brokerage on my floor, and sometimes, when the phone reps are having a hard time with a borrower, they leave their office and talk on their mobiles or headsets in the hallway.

Real estate transactions can be stressful. They involve big money, huge commitments, and multiple negotiations among and between several parties, all of whom are simultaneously protecting themselves and trying to get the best deal.

But “Andy, you’re not listening to me, bro!” is no way to help someone feel comfortable enough to pay attention. I was getting into the elevator when I overheard it, but I really wanted to stop and coach the guy!

The rep seemed to believe that his plea would stop Andy in the middle of his tirade, as if Andy would hear him out and realize that he was right and Andy was just plain wrong. How unrealistic is that?

Nobody Puts Bro in a Corner

In the midst of a tense conversation, talking over someone to try to get their attention won’t help anyone feel heard. On the contrary, it makes people feel pushed around and negated.

And when someone — even a person you’re trying very hard to help — feels diminished or pressured, then, bro, you’re in a bad place. Back up! Just pushing forward and demanding attention won’t accomplish your purpose.

On the other hand, listening first — for what is and isn’t being said, and for the emotional cast of the discussion — creates the possibility of real connection, and therefore of movement and resolution. So, instead of speaking up more forcefully, get quieter. Listen even more closely — for tone as much as for words. Does the other person sound frustrated or fussy? Disappointed? Hostile?

Practice Makes Understanding

If you find it difficult to differentiate between emotional states, or you think that everyone who disagrees with you just sounds upset, get some practice identifying emotional differences. Watch a dramatic movie or a Netflix series, and then obscure the screen so that the voices and dialog are your only input. Then look back and evaluate if the emotional expressions and gestures onscreen match your assessment.

Once you can identify feelings easily, you can think about what questions to ask. Are you hearing fear about what might go wrong? Is there anger about violation of trust, expectations, or boundaries? Probe a little, but do it quietly: “Are you concerned about…?”

The tenser the other person sounds, the more important it is to find any commonality you can, to show that you’re together. So instead of immediately correcting or instructing the upset person, ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” to show you’re interested and concerned about whatever their view or objective is.

We May Not Be Related, but We Can Relate to Each Other

Your content loses value if it’s not linked to the other person’s concerns, no matter how important you believe it is. If it sounds like it’s just about you — your process, needs, or preferences — you won’t get as far or progress as smoothly as you can when it’s clear that you’re thinking about the other person.

Once they feel you’re on their side and trust that you’re trying to help them, even angry or confused people generally calm down at least a little, giving you a better audience for more targeted questions or explanations.

Calling someone your bro won’t make him feel like one when your tone or language suggests that he’s either your opponent or controlled by you. Instead, the familiarity feels false, condescending, and manipulative — and those are terrible conditions for real communication and understanding.

So give up the phony intimacy. Listen instead, and accomplish your mutual business goals with purposeful attention and respect.

Onward and upward,


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