How to hear what isn’t being said

16 March 2016
16 March 2016, Comments: 0


Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

I love that quote. But exactly HOW do you listen to what’s not said?

I coached a young leader who inherited a dysfunctional team. There seemed to be many things not said in their “team” meetings. (I hesitate calling them a team because they weren’t working together.)

Here’s the 9 concepts we discussed for hearing what isn’t said:

  1. Avoid Personal Bias – We are all human we have biases, opinions, impressions, and judgments. The only way to avoid personal bias is to first be aware of it. You can’t stop them from impacting your interpretation if you don’t know what they are. It could be something as minor as them jingling change in their pocket. It could be their mannerisms, accent or background. Talk to someone, like a coach, to discover what some of your biases could be. Then with that awareness, try to be impartial.
  2. Listen with all of your senses – Don’t merely hear what is being said. Look at the person’s body language and notice if there are inconsistencies between what is said and their non-verbal messages. This team said they worked well together but the new leader noticed the facial expressions were more those of contempt than satisfaction.
  3. Stop talking. Stop thinking about your response – Focus on the person. Don’t try to imagine how you will respond. Give them your full attention. Don’t interrupt or finish their sentences for them (a bad habit of mine!). Let them talk at their own pace. Let them pause and think.
  4. Remove distractions – In order to fully listen, put away anything that could distract. Turn off your phone and turn it over. Don’t doodle. Don’t stare out the window. These behaviors send the message that what they are saying is not important. The members on this team did not feel like anyone listened to them. The new leader spent quite a bit of time one-on-one, without distractions, listening to each person to show he really wanted to hear what they said.
  5. Put yourself in their shoes – Try to understand the situation from their point of view. What are their concerns, fears and experiences? How can their past color today’s discussion? This team leader learned that the previous three leaders had non-technical backgrounds and did not understand what the team was supposed to do. So, these leaders ignored the team as much as possible. This team expected the “new guy” to treat them the same. When the new leader booked private meetings with each team member they were concerned because this was different from their past experiences.
  6. Listen to the volume and tone – The words may not convey what is most important, but the volume and tone could give you important clues to what the person is reluctant to share.
  7. Listen for the underlying emotion and values – Deep listening goes past the facts. Try to imagine what emotion is beneath. Attempt to see what personal values are being supported or violated. Understanding the emotions and values underneath what is being said, will help you get to what’s not being said.
  8. Be curious – Instead of having an expectation about how the discussion will go, be curious. Be open to what they have to share. The new leader was used to having agendas and outcomes for one-on-one discussions, so I worked on him being fine with wherever the conversations went.
  9. Ask clarifying questions – Once the person is finished what they are saying, ask questions to ensure you understand what they wanted to say. The questions need to be neutral and without judgment. “You did what????” is not a good way to keep the conversation open. Don’t jump to conclusions.


The new leader spent time with this team to understand what they didn’t want to say to each other and to him. Once he built up trust with the team members, he worked on creating trust within the team. While it took time, he did break through and the team started working better together.

He said that learning to listen to what wasn’t said was the big breakthrough in getting this team to function as a unit instead of individuals.

Struggling with your team? Contact me at

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