Do you ever have the sense you’re not being listened to? Perhaps a better question is: do you ever have the sense that you are? Whether you are or aren’t there are still plenty of things that you need to communicate, and people you need to educate and enroll in order to get things done at work. So how do you communicate when no one is listening?

First, we need to slightly reframe the question. In many cases, people do start out listening and there are four questions that they are listening for the answer to. It is the answers to these four questions that will then determine whether and how much they continue to listen after that. These four questions are:

  1. What is this?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. Is it credible?
  4. What is it going to take?

Whether you are selling an idea to an internal or external partner, informing your team of an upcoming project, or having a quarterly meeting with your boss, ‘what is this?’ is always the first question. Oftentimes, particularly in environments where someone has worked for a while, this question is answered nearly immediately, but even though the answer seems obvious, that does not always mean it is the answer you want them to have to that question.

Unless you are on the same page as to what it is you are speaking about, the conversation will likely circle and may even leave you lost. Human brains evolved to conserve energy where possible. One of the ways they accomplish this is by deciding what is and is not relevant and acting accordingly. The second question of relevance can be a difficult hurdle to clear as the answer usually comes pretty soon after the answer to the first question arises, which as mentioned before can be near immediate, and if the answer is ‘no’ it is difficult to get someone back into the conversation. Addressing relevance will be different for each person, as different people have different concerns, but regardless of what you speak to, speak to it early. The third and fourth questions can be a little easier to answer since there is no time horizon that you are working against.

As long as you or your information are not discredited early on, you can take the time to build credibility through a variety of ways. What it will take can even be saved until the very end, so long as when it is answered, it is answered clearly with a degree of effort equivalent to the relevance you already created. By answering these questions upfront, letting them know what you are speaking about, that it is both relevant to them and that your words are credible, and exactly what it will take from them, it is more likely that your communications will get past this question screen and you’ll have more people engaged in the conversation.

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