SBM Articles


The Other (More Important) Half Of Communication

by Jeremy Nulik

Years ago, I was covering a St. Louis-based CEO. My assignment was to write a short profile and get his keys to success. After an interview, we stopped at an employee’s desk.

“Hey, do you have the proposal ready for this afternoon?” the CEO asks.

 “I was scheduling a lunch with the Kansas City guys tomorrow, but they may have a conflict,” says the employee.

“It’s important that the proposal gets out by the end of the day,” says the CEO, nodding.

 “Barbeque is probably a good option, but I think that the whole Kansas City versus St. Louis thing might be a thing, you know?” says the employee.

If you turned the sound off, the interaction resembled a conversation. But a better description would be parallel monologues. Neither of these men listened to the other. They just said what was in their heads in concert.

 It is easy to paint these two as communicatively inept but, each day, we have conversations like this with employees, customers, vendors and even dear friends. We fail to really listen to each other.

According to the University of Missouri, of our communication hours, we spend nine percent writing, 30 percent speaking and 45 percent listening. Well, supposedly listening. Most people retain 25 percent of the words we hear. If you are anything like most humans that means that you are spending 75 percent of that time (when another person is talking) thinking of what you are going to say, weighing whether or not you enjoyed the latest Tarantino film or ruminating on that latest political Twitter post that has you all riled up.

Listening skillfully can help your company retain your most talented people, calm upset customers, avoid lawsuits and give you piece of mind. And learning to listen costs you nothing but time.

I am not an expert listener. However, from my years in journalism and from yet more years of helping executives to effectively communicate, I have observed a couple of simple tools that can set you on the path.

1. Turn off distractions. Obvious. And I’m guilty of this. But you cannot truly listen to another person while posting to Instagram.

2. Stop talking. Again…should be obvious. But there is a reason it makes the list. We all do it. You are in the mode of receiving information, so no speaking.

3. Reserve your judgment. When another person is speaking, most of us begin to evaluate the content. Instead, tell yourself, “I am listening. I want to soak up everything I hear and see.” Sounds cheesy, but it works.

4. Say back what you heard. When you believe the person is finished, say, “What I hear you saying is…” then say what you understand. Try to cover both content and emotion.

5. Ask them if you got it right. It could be that you missed something or that you don’t have the emotional nature quite right. It is also helpful if you ask them if there is more you need to hear.

Do this. Practice it. Part of being a leader is obtaining a level of mastery with tools like these that separate you and increase your empathy and influence.

Note: Credit for the rigor backing this procedure goes to Judy Ryan, a fellow columnist in SBM and an accomplished expert at human systems.

Jeremy Nulik ( is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a design futures agency, in St. Louis, Mo.
Submitted 8 years 54 days ago
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