Can You Hear Me Now? Working With People Who Don’t Listen

Trying to communicate with someone so focused on themselves that they simply don’t listen just adds to your already stressful day. Whether it’s a colleague, client or opposing counsel, they might interrupt you, ramble endlessly or obviously be impatient for you to stop talking so they can jump in, it makes you wonder what the point of talking is?

In these situations not only does your anger rise, but there can be mistakes and misunderstandings that can cause much greater problems. What should you do?

An article by Rebecca Knight in the Harvard Business Review tries to answer that question.

  • There may be some legitimate issues. The other person may have a hard time hearing or has a very short attention span. They may be more visual learners who don’t do as well when someone is talking to them. You could ask the person how they prefer to get information. For some sending an email or creating a short, basic PowerPoint may be more effective.
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Take a look at your own listening style. Are you an active listener, trying to get the most from the other person or are you a bad listener? Perhaps others are following your lead. Do you have a hard time keeping things short, use too many statistics or figures? Do you interrupt others or are you impatient for others to wrap it up?
  • Set the example by being an “empathetic listener” by trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint, take notes and repeat back the key points during natural pauses in the conversation while working in the points you want to be covered.
  • If you have something essential to say, say so before you start talking. Stating at the beginning that you have something important to say sends a signal to others they should pay attention and listen carefully. Make your main points multiple times in different ways. When you’re done, ask the person or group if what you said makes sense or if you’re understood.
  • You can show genuine concern for the other person by nicely telling them they seem distracted and if there’s anything you can do for them. If a smartphone is buzzing away or vibrating across the table, ask the person if he or she needs to find out what that’s about or if there’s a better time for the conversation.
  • If this is a severe problem and you have a good relationship with the other person, tactfully address the issue directly and tell the person that he or she isn’t hearing what others have to say. Cite examples where the person wasn’t listening, and there were negative consequences. Addressing this can be a practical approach if done diplomatically and you have a healthy relationship with the person, or you risk the person becoming defensive and, true to form, not listen to you.

Communication is a major part of an attorney’s job. The time and energy spent crafting a message are wasted if the other person isn’t listening. If it takes you some additional time and energy to make sure your message gets through, it’s an investment worth making.

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