Many of us watched the first Presidential debate between President Donald Trump and incumbent Vice President Joe Biden. If you were struggling to hear the messages coming across from both gentlemen, you’re not alone.  No matter what your political views, we can all probably agree that at times the two men’s words were hard to hear clearly due to their talking over one another. Viewers from both parties have expressed a desire to hear more discussions around public policy. Although the participants’ thoughts might have merit, they flew out of their mouths too haphazardly to serve their ideal purpose. It seems that just like individuals in regular homes like yours and mine, these guys can get topsy turvy when they’re emotionally charged. So maybe it’s an appropriate time to think about what their example means for us. If we really want to be heard and understood, we need a working strategy.


#1. Focus on what others say first. 

We all want to be heard. However, each listener sets different standards for what they take in as meaningful apart from noise and threats. As badly as we may want another to understand our points, views, and intentions, the first thing we must do in order for our communication to make sense is not talk, but listen. What a person says and how they say it tells us the requirements they have for information to make it past the noise and threat gates to the place where genuine contemplation happens. As hard as it may be, a good communicator lets the other person speak first. They ask questions to maximize their opportunity to gather information. They’re listening for common themes and frequently used words. They notice the rise and fall of voice tone and physical mannerisms like eye movements and body posture. By gathering information sincerely and intently, they can understand not only the words of another but their possible motivations. If you know these details you can customize your approach, and effectively present your stance. 

When it’s time for you to speak you’ll know. If you’ve done your listening correctly, there will come a cadence when a short silence or movement in the other person will signal they’ve downloaded everything that matters. You may notice their tension eases because they’ve been able to communicate without interruption. 

Conversations that move forward usually start with an individual’s ability to trust the speaker. And without ever taking the stage, you’ve put the first building block of trust in place, letting them talk and showing your intent to understand. Your first words should simply validate them. 

No new thoughts of your own should be introduced at this point. Let the individual know (if you do) that you see why they could or would have their thoughts in the first place. Acknowledge their experience as an individual and thank them for sharing. 


#2. Build on their thoughts. 

After your validating comments, move to make your case by building new thoughts around the points the other person made. Resist the urge to shut down their opinions with your own facts and experience immediately. If the real goal is to be heard, then common ground is the best place to start. “Motion equals motion” is not just a law of physics. The human mind wants to travel in the same direction, not stop abruptly and turn course. So address any commonality you can find (and you may have to get creative), which holds their attention with something you both care about. Then you can introduce your thoughts alongside theirs instead of hitting them head-on. Here’s an example – 

“I get that you’re excited to demonstrate a prototype to the board now, and I am also extremely eager to move this project along as quickly as possible because this would open a wonderful new revenue stream for us. And my thought is that getting this in front of the board now would stall our process. Here’s why…”

Use the motion flowing word “and” instead of “but”. Other good terms to know are: 

for that reason
and it’s also true that
“and that’s why” 

Remember all that intent listening you did earlier? You’ll want to use similar word choice and pace of talking while at the same time presenting a different point of view. 


#3. Appreciate the process. 

Communication is a process. It’s unlikely that you’ll reach total agreement when you’re speaking with a person that disagrees with you. The process is still priceless. Nothing can get done if we can’t succeed at true thought exchange. We don’t have to decide how we absorb new information the moment it comes to us. It’s even more valuable to take another’s feedback and ponder it a bit. 

Thank the person for having the courage and grace to communicate respectfully and for making the time to engage in conversation even if it might have made things uncomfortable between you. Assure the person that you value them as an individual and that the conversation doesn’t change the way you feel about their personhood. If they did, let them know that they’ve done a good job communicating their thoughts well enough that you will spend more time thinking about them. 

In closing, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the first Presidential debate of 2020 is a vivid reminder that we should all esteem to get better at communicating under pressure (when good communication matters the most). It’s our best shot at truly hearing one another and reaching the goals we all want.

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