How To Listen To What People DON’T Say

African hr manager listening to caucasian applicant at job interviewManagers are taught that they must always listen to their staff and pay attention to what they are saying. Staff have needs and wants that we as managers need to understand and appreciate. However, there are times when we can’t be straight and direct with people (they can’t be that way with us) because we have guidelines on how we need to interact and will often fall out with people if we told them what we REALLY think! So we attempt to mask our feelings and create situations where we aren’t truly honest with each other. This can cause discord and shallow relationships, out of fear of offending or speaking our mind. This causes us to send ‘hidden messages’ where we try to make a point in a surreptitious way, or hide something back.

Then we expect the other person to understand our message, even though we’ve been covering up the real meaning. We therefore need to develop the ability to read through these hidden messages and recognise as much as possible the real messages that are coming through. Here are some examples: ‘I quite like your idea…’ ‘That is certainly one way of looking at it…’ ‘Yes, I can see some benefit in doing it that way…’ ‘That might work…’ What do you notice about all of these? Well, firstly, they sound a little ‘wishy-washy’, slightly vague in their meaning. You can almost hear a ‘…but’ coming after the phrase, can’t you? When you suspect that opinions or viewpoints are being held back for some reason, try to tease out the real meaning.

Your ability to uncover these hidden concerns people have will go a long way in positively driving the conversation forward, and help you achieve a better, more co-ordinated conversation. Let’s take each of the above statements and see how we could uncover the real meaning by asking positive questions:


Team member: ‘I quite like your idea…’ You: ‘You sound a little unenthusiastic about it, though. Which particular aspects of the idea appeal to you?’


Team member: ‘That is certainly one way of looking at it…’ You: ‘OK, what benefits can you see from taking that approach?’


Team member: ‘Yes, I can see some benefit in doing it that way…’ You: ‘Good! What specific benefits do you see in doing it that way?’


Team member: ‘That might work…’ You: ‘OK, how do you see it working and why?


What you are seeing here is confirmation of the person’s point of view, and then an enquiring position on your part, where you try to dig deeper to uncover the other’s hidden message. What we try to do in conversations is let people know our viewpoint, but many hidden messages are involved because we don’t want to undermine authority or make ourselves unpopular or hurt others’ feelings. If we can identify when the person is doing this, we can positively interact with them and help ourselves see the real message behind what they are saying. This means listening more to what ISN’T being said, as well as what is.

Want to learn more? Then why not book an Essential Management Skills Course with MTD.

Thanks again

Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training | Management Blog | Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo

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