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Hearing Beyond The Words

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said,” according to management author and consultant, Peter F. Drucker.

When I was a teenager (a couple of years ago), I remember my older sister frequently asking me: “Do you think I am good looking?” I would often reply that I wasn’t going on her fishing trip—implying that she was fishing for a compliment. She is gorgeous of course, but I didn’t want to let her know that.

What she was really saying to me in her question was that she didn’t think or wasn’t sure that she was attractive. I later learned to reassure her that she was beautiful and that most guys would find her so. She went on to become one of the most popular and good looking women in her college.

Applying this concept to public relations is invaluable in terms of hearing what a client is saying. Hearing what isn’t being said often reveals that jokes and satire usually contain an element of truth, serious concerns contain an element of reality and not saying anything implies the truth and reality (which is why “no comment” is a bad response in an interview).

Bullies and liars are often insecure. Aggressive behavior often hides fear and shyness. Overtly shy people are often deep thinkers with something to say (and they often mask their fears and become public relations people—a study I saw about ten years ago showed that Myers-Briggs tests on public relations people revealed that most are off-the-charts introverts).

So how do you listen beyond the words? According to Jack Pyle of Face to Face Matters in Michigan, you have to C.A.R.E.

C – Concentrate. Listen with your eyes to observe the body language of the person you’re talking with. Does the person fidget? Avoid your eyes? Shuffle papers? Listen also with your ears, not only for what the other person is saying, but how they are saying it, paying attention to the volume, the tone of voice and speed of talking.

A – Ask yourself two questions: What is the person feeling? What is their main message? Then compare the feelings to the main message. Are they in sync?

R – Respond to the feelings. The biggest mistake you can make is to deny the validity of that person’s feelings with such comments as “You shouldn’t worry about that” or “That’s not such a big deal.” The person will feel you aren’t listening.

E – Explain what you hear, paraphrasing the person’s words. (Regular readers of this column will remember my basic advice “You have to start where they are.” There is not greater way to start than by acknowledging where they are including restating their emotional position.)

Always remember that 60-80% of all we communicate is non-verbal. Listening beyond the words is the major way to communicate and to hear what people are saying to us.


Originally published in the Kennebec Business Monthly in March 2001 as part of a monthly guest series on public relations and marketing.