Match Your Listener’s Tendency

Have you ever felt frustrated when someone won’t get to the point? Or have you ever felt like the person you’re talking to just isn’t hearing you? Master communicators navigate these challenges of understanding using an ancient technique that you can learn quickly.

matching-puzzle-piecesHow much would you pay to work with the man who studied with Plato for 20 years, expanded every field of human knowledge, and in his spare time coached Alexander the Great (before he conquered the world)? Our understanding of how the best leaders communicate begins with Aristotle. Unfortunately, all we have are his lecture notes. They read like gibberish until you translate his ideas into ways you can communicate differently today. He was the first to recognize that people need information presented in patterns, and that those patterns are distinct. The most important pattern that applies to your work is how you provide the details and make your point.

People tend to be either inductive or deductive thinkers. To figure out which someone is, listen for where they make their point. For instance, suppose a co-worker says to you that last Sunday he was at a family dinner. His mother-in-law was there, and she said that he should lose some weight. He goes on to say that he found that rude, but based on her comment he decided to take up jogging (stay with us now this is all on purpose). So he tells you that he went to the mall to get some sneakers. But when he got there, he couldn’t find a parking place. So he had to park on the other side of the mall from the shoe store, and when he had walked through the whole mall to get to the store, it didn’t have sneakers.

Are you still with him, or do you want him to get to the point? Your answer determines your tendency in the moment.

He keeps talking, and he says that he went to another store, where he found these great white sneakers. He knows his mother-in-law is just going to love them. He’s planning to go for a jog this afternoon, and he wants to know if you think it’s going to rain.

Inductive Thinkers

Because he is an inductive thinker, he can’t just ask if it’s going to rain. He is not trying to annoy you or cause you teeth-grinding, fingers screeching down-the-blackboard irritation. His brain won’t let him ask you about rain if he doesn’t first tell you the important details about his mother-in-law and the process of buying his shoes. In his mind, he is being helpful. He believes you need to know all the details first.

It may sound like babble, but these are not just random thoughts. This is an example of someone who is extremely inductive. He is still inductive if he says, “I just got a new pair of sneakers. I don’t want to get them dirty. Do you know if it’s going to rain?” The question about rain is the point. Noticing whether it comes first or last is the core competency of mastering the technique. If you are a leader or a manager working with an inductive thinker, you need to communicate the details before you make your point if you want your listener to get the message.

Deductive Thinkers

Working with a deductive thinker, your colleague needs the point first. The person still cares about the details of what you have to say, but he will become incredibly impatient if you tell a story or try to ask a question without first clarifying what you want.

Take the same example of today’s weather. An extremely deductive thinker who does not want to get his new white running shoes dirty and who had the exact same experience with a meddling mother-in-law might simply ask you, “Is it going to rain today?” The most extreme deductive thinkers might not even use a full sentence: They might just say, “Rain?” They want to know about rain, and that is all they’ll mention. If your colleague says, “Do you know if it’s going to rain today? I just got new sneakers, and I don’t want to get them dirty,” he is also deductive.
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It is easy to feel that deductive thinkers are cold and don’t care about the details. You can experience them as curt, even dismissive of the intricacies of what you are trying to say. They do care about the nuances of an idea or story just as much as someone who is inductive. They just need ideas in a different order. If your teammate is deductive, to process the reasons behind what you are saying, he needs the point first. Then he will be able to appreciate the details of your point.

Adaptation from Mastering Communication at Work, Second Edition: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence (McGraw-Hill Education, February 2021).



Ethan Becker & Jon Wortmann

Ethan Becker & Jon Wortmann

Ethan F. Becker, PhD is the president and senior coach/trainer for the Speech Improvement Company. Jon Wortmann is an advisor and speaker on leadership, communication, and building trusted relationships. They are the authors of Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence, second edition released in February 2021. An instant classic, the first edition of Mastering Communication at Work, is an international bestseller taught at universities and referred to by leading CEOs. In the years since it was first published, it’s been the go-to “communication playbook,” helping leaders develop strategic responses and communication tactics with clear, actionable advice. So, what's changed in the last 10 years? Well, nothing—and EVERYTHING.

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