[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Making someone feel understood is a powerful leadership tool that makes the difference between motivating with external incentives, which merely guide, and internal emotions, which motivate from within. With practice you’ll be able to evoke passions and inspire. They’ll often feel gratitude toward you for the inspiration, even as they contribute more than usual.
You’ll be surprised at how enthusiastically and fully people contribute when they feel understood about emotions that matter to them but find difficult to share.
I’ve written about the value of somebody feeling understood as distinct from just understanding them. Today I’ll cover some specific low-level behaviors to make someone feel understood and ensure you understand them. Covering these in my “How to Lead People So They Want You to Lead Them Again” seminar is one of its high points for most people. Everything clicks for people on both sides of the interaction and they realize how critical, powerful, and simple this quick technique is.
First, remember the distinction and why it matters. You understanding them happens in your head. Someone feeling understood happens in their head. It matters because their motivation comes from inside their heads, not yours, so all the understanding in the world from others doesn’t matter to them until it results in them feeling understood.
It’s hard to fool understanding someone else so making them feel understood generally starts with understanding them, but you can’t stop there. For one thing, you can never understand another person perfectly. You probably don’t understand yourself perfectly. If you don’t confirm and clarify your understanding with them, you won’t know what misunderstandings you have. Confirming and clarifying both improves your understanding and helps them feel understood.
What you do
The following can take under five minutes. it will establish a feeling of understanding you can build on for the rest of your relationship with the person. If you do no more than the following, the other person will feel like you connected with them. If you use it as a foundation, you can build tremendous connections with someone. The more you do it with different people the more you’ll get a feel for how and why it works and the more you’ll build your relationships on understanding. You’ll feel the effects across all your relationships
- Put their interests before yours, at least for this interaction
- Start them talking about something meaningful
- Give them non-judgmental space to respond
- If necessary, persist firmly but respectfully. Take for granted they have passions because they do. They might just need to verify your sincerity
1.1. Put their interests before yours
This step seems trivial but everything later depends on it. People sense when you’re acting in your interests versus theirs. If they sense you’re just helping yourself, they’ll feel used. If they sense you are interested in their interests first, they’ll feel motivated to share things they don’t normally get to but want to share because they’re so important.
1.2. Start them talking about something meaningful
The other day’s post “How to set your angel free” I suggested some starting questions to get them sharing something worth understanding.
- What are your passions?
- What do you like to do?
- What are you good at?
- When you are doing what you’re best at, how does it make you feel?
You can ask more mundane questions, but you’ll get less meaningful answers. I recommend using words like passion. I had trouble starting, but it came with practice. Now it feels normal, nobody sees a problem with it, and I connect with people on more important and meaningful things than I used to.
1.3. Give them non-judgmental space to respond
Just listen without interrupting, interpreting, or adding. Many people feel like contributing shows you are listening more. Usually not. If the person wanted you to talk they’d stop talking.
1.4. Persist if necessary
I’ve asked people their passions hundreds of times. Many times people have told me they didn’t have passions. At first I let it go. As my sensitivity and experience grew I realized everyone has passions. I think people say they don’t to protect themselves since passions can make you vulnerable. Or because they feel bad for not having acted on their passions. I politely ask again what they like to do, what they’re good at, what they wish they had more time for, what they make plans for or something like that. If they insist enough, I point out humorously that they aren’t just lying in bed waiting to die. They got out of bed in the morning so they expected to do something to improve their lives. I’ve never had someone get past that stage without sharing something meaningful to them.
2. Confirmation/Clarification cycle
So far we’ve opened them up. The next step is to make them feel understood. It’s easier than you might expect. It happens through a cycle of humbly telling them your understanding, asking them to clarify if necessary, allowing them to correct you, and iterating until you see the emotion click in them of feeling understood and in you of seeing them open up. People feel put off by this cycle, apprehensive that getting corrected showed a problem. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of getting to understand someone. You’ll learn to look forward to going through this process.
- State your understanding of what they shared, generally using their words.
- They will correct you about something, even if you repeat what they shared word for word. That’s part of the process. Listen without correcting them.
- Return to step 1 with your new understanding until they communicate that you get it.
Their communicating that you get it is usually an emotionally rewarding experience on both sides. They will visibly change their body language, brighten up, speak more enthusiastically, and start sharing information you can tell they’ve been protecting for a while. You’ll sense them feeling relieved, unburdened, and enthusiastic at someone finally caring about what they do.
You will also feel emotional reward. Sometimes you’ll feel a slight Machiavellian thrill, almost a guilty pleasure, at their following your lead so well, realizing that you’ve gained the ability to influence them, part of the reason your preparation began with putting their interests before yours. Since you’ll also feel a sense of trust on their part, you’ll feel motivated to respect and honor that trust.
In other words, you’ll get closer to the person for their having shared their vulnerability with you. As I wrote, if you stop the process here, you’ll have created and shared a moment of understanding and support that both of you will appreciate. If you continue, you can take things far. I’ll leave where you can go for later posts, but I’ll note a few major directions to continue what you started.
- Share back
- Ask for elaboration
Try the exercise. Let me know how it goes.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book