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It’s Not What You Say; It’s What They Think It Means 

By  Lisa Giruzzi

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Created by an ELA participant at the VitalSigns NY Weekend 10-2015 when asked “How does leadership occur to you in EMS?”

Despite this most people spend the vast majority of their energy and attention on what they are going to say rather than how it is going to be listened to.

People listen through their assessments, opinions, interpretations, expectations, etc. Despite the fact that these things are based on past experiences and have very little (if anything) to do with what is happening in this current moment, they add meaning to what is being said and significantly influence what is heard by your audience.

For effective communication to occur you must take others’ listening into account.

Although you cannot control people’s listening, in order for effective communication to occur you must take others’ listening into account. You can influence how they listen to you and get through the morass of assessments, opinions, interpretations and expectations and establish a shared understanding – the goal of effective communication.

The way each of us listens is unique because our pasts are unique and our listening is shaped by our pasts. However, there are some commonalities that when understood will enhance communication greatly.

I once heard someone say that people all listen to the same radio station – WIIFM, the “What’s In It For Me” station. In other words, people listen through their concerns. They are trying to answer the questions, “How does this effect me?” and “What does this mean for me?”

If you want people to hear what you are actually saying make sure you use phrases like, “What this means for you is…” Also, make sure you understand what the concerns are of your audience. If you don’t know, ask. (For more on how to influence others without arm-twisting, check this out)

Assuming is one of the biggest barriers to effective communication.

Another common way people listen is for agreement, i.e. is what’s being said in alignment with what they know to be true?

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Mostly, people do not relate to their assessments, opinions, and interpretations as one possible way to view the world. They act as if their assessments are true facts – the only way to view the world – and therefore they are looking to validate what they know to be true and discount what they disagree with. To counteract this way of listening you must speak in terms of your opinion.

Ask people to consider what you are saying. Phrases such as “The way I see it…” or “In my experience…” are helpful to disarm others’ knee jerk reactions when their truths are threatened.

Lastly, because people listen for agreement to validate their version of reality, another common way people listen is from a black-white, right-wrong perspective. In other words, if what you are saying is right then I must be wrong or vice versa.

This can be one of the most challenging ways of listening to deal with because we all have it to a certain degree and protecting our “rightness” feels critically important especially when in a position of authority.

Rarely, if ever, is there one right way to do anything.

One of the best ways to deal with this is to recognize and accept there is rarely, if ever, one right way to do anything. This will help you to feel less threatened when others are arguing for their “rightness.” Using phrases that acknowledge you know there is more than one right way is essential.

An example is, “There are probably many ways to accomplish X and we are choosing to do Y for three months and then we will reevaluate.” This enables people to be less defensive and argumentative. It gives them room to try the selected pathway without having to instantly and fully buy into the chosen path as the right path.

Navigating the listening of others is an art that takes practice to master.

Once you become interested in it you will be amazed at what you begin to learn and how it greatly enhances communication.

Influence without armtwisting AudioContinue to study how to influence others with our “Influence Without Arm-twisting” 60 minute audio.

Listen to it once or 10 times, we know you’ll get something out of it each time.

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Lisa Giruzzi


Lisa is a best-selling author, result-producing consultant and an award-winning trainer with more than twenty-five years’ experience helping individuals and organizations to be more successful and achieve their goals. She specializes in causing breakthrough results for her clients by giving them access to a whole new level of power and performance.

Robbie MacCue

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