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Always be listener-centric

Article (1) finished by suggesting the principles of

  1. Letting the listener in
  2. Meaning what you say

I’ll come back to these later.

Let’s back up a bit and explore some context.


How we are

When humans are put in challenging situations, these situations tend to put our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, into the limelight. Communicating-in-front-of-others (often referred to as ‘public speech’ or ‘presentation’ or ‘interview’) is commonly felt to be a highly daunting experience. Apparently 75% of us suffer speech anxiety

Humans are socially trained in conversation within every society in the world. This training enforces the size of space that should be maintained between speakers and listeners. It’s not a large distance. At around 0.5-2 metres for normal conversation, it’s a gap that affords each individual their personal space, yet still allows for frequent passing of verbal and non-verbal cues. The cues help you (as a speaker) stay listener-centric. Paying attention to these cues, we mould our speaking turn both around what we want to say, and how the listener is responding. The frequent turn-taking that occurs is a mechanism for exchanging thoughts and feelings and adapting to each other in the flow.

There’s a problem

The problems start when we stop monitoring where our listener’s at. We start talking ‘at them’ as opposed to communicate with them. Talk talk talk talk talk talk, as opposed to cycles of talk…listen…talk…listen…talk…listen.

When you understand how conversation works, it can really help you monitor and adapt how you interact with others. It’s a good role model for how to communicate in more one-way situations, such as presentations and speeches. For example, watching for more obvious listener cues, such as nods, helps you understand the rate at which listeners are processing your utterances. Remember that even though a listener in an audience of many may not be nodding or interacting with you, they still need you to remain adaptive as a communicator. So, when we say ‘let the listener in’ what we mean by this is to allow them into your communication pattern. Don’t lock them out by talking talking talking without a decent pause gap between each utterance that you make.

Of course, pausing for too long each time will equally frustrate the listener. We usually get the pause gap right in conversation, yet when communicating-in-front-of-others, it will need to be slightly longer than feels natural. This is to compensate for the nerves you may be feeling, which may encourage you to keeping talking talking talking, instead of splitting your speech into highly manageable chunks.

Let’s talk about pauses.

Just because there are words coming out of your mouth, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re communicating effectively. Much skill resides in co-ordinating the various and vital mental processes that communication demands. As a root requirement, you should be organising your speech or utterance pattern around pauses. Actually stopping your speech become word bursts. Not just slowing down the words every now and again. This takes focus, and it takes time and patience to adopt as a skill. Yet it is essential.

In conversation, I believe that we time the pauses about right, so that the listener can:

  1. Absorb what you’ve just said
  2. Get ready for what you’re about to say next

And that hopefully what you do say is a ‘something of value’, clearly stated. Instead of a long, complex sentence peppered with excess um ah sounds, stretched words and you knows.

How long is a pause?

A PAUSE GAP OF ABOUT 2 SECONDS is fine when you are practicing. In real life, if it shrinks down to about 0.5-1 second, this is about right!

So, how about ‘meaning what you say? (My point 2 at the top). You’re trying to strike a balance between clarity of message (they can keep up with you), and true self coming across (you actually mean what you say). The pause gaps are fundamentally helpful in this respect. And that discreet time for your mind to ‘think’ ALSO allows your mind to shape how each utterance will sound.

Pauses help shape voice tonality and emphasis

This is easy to test. Try speaking on any topic as fast as you can with no gaps or pauses in between your words a little like this and you’ll hear that your voice pitch goes flat as your mind concentrates like crazy to keep the words in the right order but has no capacity to incorporate the stress or emphasis on the appropriate word which is a proxy for how you feel about what you’re saying.

  • And now go back to normal yet with pause gaps [Take a pause gap of 1-2 seconds]
  • And you’ll hear how your VOICE [1-2 second pause gap]
  • AUTOMATICALLY knows where the stress should fall [1-2 second pause gap]
  • Without you EVEN having to consciously think about it [1-2 second pause gap]
  • After all when we’re chatting with FRIENDS [1-2 second pause gap]
  • We don’t plan which word we’re going to STRESS! [1-2 second pause gap]
  • It happens NATURALLY, RIGHT? [1-2 second pause gap]


To wrap up


Listeners will enjoy processing your KEY WORDS as a node around which to hang their understanding of what you’re saying. Yet they also need to know how you FEEL about what you’re saying. That’s the ‘meaning what you say’ bit.

Pauses are a very useful tool. They help fuse your thoughts and feelings together, so that both your intellectual and your emotional intent are clear.

Try this anywhere.

Please remember. I’m offering frameworks here, as opposed to rigid advice. These frameworks are designed to get flexed in the real world, yet retain their basic integrity.

As a framework: always be listener-centric.

 – James Bryce

Learning Library

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