Leadership Matters

Making sure people feel understood is key

By Christina Harbridge

Ever been on a phone call, in a conversation or in a meeting and realized the conversation is unclear, or not working? Humans often go into conversations thinking about what they want to say rather than first thinking about what the listener is willing to hear. Communication is a two-way street, yet it is not always treated that way. Since communication requires that another person is listening, it really doesn’t matter what is being said if no one is listening.

One simple, deliberate practice can increase influence. Ask an orienting question.

“What do you want to make sure happens in this phone call/meeting – what matters most to you?”

Here are a few examples of how this context-setting question can work in a conversation.

Example #1: A typical sales call

“Hi, Joe. We scheduled this call to discuss outsourcing talent education. What do you want to make sure happens in this phone call?”

There are various possible responses to that question. Think of how differently a salesperson would respond to each of these responses:

  • Can you run a retreat next Monday?
  • We are currently using ABC training. What is different about your company?
  • We have never outsourced before, and I’m not convinced it is the right thing to do.
  • We have a small budget. What are your fees?
  • I have no idea who you are or what you do.

Each of the responses above shifts what the influencer should say. If the salesperson speaks first, he or she is relying on luck rather than on a rational practice of finding out about the potential customer first. People are most influenced when the conversation is focused on what they care about. Potential customers usually buy when they feel heard.

Example #2: Employee one-on-one meeting

At the weekly one-on-one meeting, a manager begins by asking the employee, “What do you want to make sure happens in this one-on-one?”

Again, there are various possible responses to that question. Think of how differently a boss would respond to the following responses:

  • I have three projects that are stalled because I need a decision from you.
  • The new product is going to ship two weeks late unless you…
  • I have lost confidence and want to discuss leaving.
  • Nothing. I don’t understand why we meet each week.

How a leader responds is where the real influence begins. He or she needs to know reality and the state of the team member’s situation before determining what is most important to focus on in a one-on-one. Yet, leaders often drive a meeting without first understanding a very important piece for success – employee engagement.

Since people have a basic need to feel understood, a leader who shows that he or she truly understands is more likely to gain commitment from a team member.

Example #3: A one-on-one with the CEO

A human resources expert is typically skilled at having uncomfortable conversations. To best influence the decision-making of a CEO, he or she typically must be in a comfortable (non-reactive) listening state. The key to executive influence is their ability to keep the CEO open and comfortable for as long as possible. One way to do this is to begin the meeting with an orienting question, focus on exactly what the CEO cares most about first: “What do you want to make sure happens in this meeting?”

All humans have the basic need to feel understood, and often the conversation a people expert has planned will connect directly with either the emotional state of the CEO or the outcomes they say they want. Or it may become very clear conditions are not optimal for the planned agenda.

Curiosity is key

If we are thinking rationally, curiosity is the key to influencing other people. Without clear questions and an open, curious mind, time is wasted and both parties leave feeling unheard.

  • Curiosity is contagious – When we are truly curious about another person, we can frame our conversation so they can easily find themselves in what we are saying, then they are more likely to listen. This is important in sales, as noted above, most especially in leadership.
  • True commitment can’t be faked – How people feel about themselves around a leader dictates commitment versus compliance. Since people have a basic need to feel understood, a leader who shows that he or she truly understands is more likely to gain commitment from a team member. We do not manage time anymore; we manage attention. Commitment must be a goal in any conversation – not verbalized faux commitment, but real commitment.
  • Ask and know for sure – if influence requires another person’s mindset, state, preferences or emotional complexity, it seems more rational to do something to see where they are before starting to talk. In the scenarios above, what is said and how it is said changes based on how the other person comes to the conversation.

Communicating with emotional literacy means to behave in ways that move a leader closer to outcomes they truly want, especially during difficult or uncomfortable moments. It enables influencers to see discomfort as a sign that something is going right, rather than as a sign that something is going wrong.

Perhaps people do not ask what other people want out of a conversation because they want to stick to their agenda. If the other person starts talking, the goal of the meeting may get hijacked. Yet, one key piece of influence is the ability to confront reality sooner, then improve up on it. Influence improves when the listener is open to hear what the influencer has to say, and when the influencer is okay with discomfort.


Christina Harbridge is the founder of Allegory, Inc. and the author of an upcoming book, Swayed: How to Communicate for Impact.