Issues in Communication Part 3

Why don’t people listen?

The marketing ideal is to get “The right message to the right people at the right time” and while it works, it is not that easy to do. This is the third in a series looking at communication and some of the issues we face in consulting.

Part 1 covered issues around Hierarchies.

Part 2 covered issues around how you communicate, the message you think you deliver is not what is received

Here are five potential answers to the question. I discuss this communication issue in the context of change initiatives.



We all filter out communication in our daily lives. Whether it is the casual conversations going on over the partition when we are busy writing a report or filtering out that annoying buzz from a light fitting. If we are being pestered by a family member about something we have made our mind up over we can ignore the repeated requests fairly easily – until a tantrum or similar gets our attention again.  Out brain is good at filtering out what we do not want to hear.

How often have you been asked about some e-mail message and you cannot recall anything like that being received. Then you check and see that it is marked as read or even that you replied. It is just that the message (See Part 2) you were sent is not always the message you receive because we are likely to filter the messages and take what we want from them and often do not seek any more than that.

Death by PowerPoint is an excellent way to get filtered. Bore your audience and you will be filtered in future no matter what you have to say. It is hard to recover from that filtering too. You are now classified as non-relevant. The same thing applies to rambling reports and papers that do not get straight to the point with valuable insights.

If you don’t want a particular thing to happen then you are likely to filter messages related to the change by ignoring them or putting in the file “This too will pass”. Conversely, if you want change to happen then positive communication about that change becomes a highlight in your day.


Not my Department

This is when someone is really saying that your concerns are not shared by them and therefore will be ignored. It can also be a matter of the language you are using is not the same as they use. At a particular client we were puzzled by the fact that one branch of the organisation never seemed to be fully on board with a transformation program. The CEO was on board stating compelling reasons for the change and nearly everyone wanting both structural and operational changes to be progressed as soon as possible. One area, the Compliance Branch, was reluctant. It turned out that they were sure that the changes being introduced were not relevant to them because they had always been independent and were entirely self-reliant.

They saw the changes in operations as something that others needed to undertake in order to perform as well as themselves. We also discovered that a single term was used differently in that branch and that it had caused some of the staff to believe that their needs were not being addressed in the transformation program. They thought they should be left alone to continue their good work! Once it was realised that they could serve as an example for the rest of the organisation to follow, this Branch became a change leader.

A close relative is the Not invented here syndrome where the idea must come from that group (or person) before it is accepted as valid.


Man with two mouths and one ear

Some people just do not want to listen to anyone else. They are too fond of their own opinions to listen to others to have time for listening. Good luck with communicating because communication requires the message(s) to be received too. The title here is what the Indonesian Government called one of the Australian Foreign Ministers while I was there delivering a project for the World Bank. They also applied the same label to an American consultant who lectured the Ministerial Advisors on how corrupt they were and that the USA would cut its aid if any irregularities were found in administration of funds.

I could see the reaction to this and overhead the label he was given. I tried an alternative – learning enough of the language Bahasa to get by, I started a press conference in Bahasa (not that fluently but grammatically correct according to the locals working with me) and was marked up for at least putting in an effort to respect the country I was in. After that I found my counterparts took the time to advise me more completely about what things to look for and small personal details to use in the initial conversation, when meeting over forty senior bureaucrats in the Government and Executives in the Private Sector. This is the Javanese way and I got the benefit of being an honorary local because I tried to meet them half way. The American continued to complain about how the Indonesian people were so untrustworthy and you could never believe anything they say.


Practice what you preach –

The Golden Rule Applies.

Why should anyone listen if they do not have some respect for you? Why would they want to help you achieve something that is important to you?

Will we listen to the manager who tells how important it is for us to all be on time for the weekly sales meeting when they frequently miss appointments and reschedule them at the last minute (perhaps when you are just arriving at the office after half an hour travelling)? Will we submit our weekly report on time (an inconvenient one at that) when we know it never gets read unless something went badly wrong and there is a search for a scapegoat?  Are we going to go out of our way to offer support to a manager who only ever talks to us at the Annual Performance Review?

Think about how often you might have been in a corporate setting and listened to a fine presentation from an Executive about some new initiative that they believe in completely. At the end of the presentation where the benefits of the new and best thing ever have been described there is a Q&A session where someone asks who will receive any rewards if the benefits are achieved. It emerges that the rewards for the new initiative will go to senior Executives who will gain substantially. Most staff will not see much benefit because the initiative is all about corporate accountabilities.

Little wonder people switch off from corporate style communication.


You have my support

I left one of the most difficult communication problems to last. Changing minds is not easy. In fact there is only a slim chance that, through a single communication activity,  you will change somebody’s mind at all if they were not thinking something similar themselves beforehand. When challenged to think differently about something, most people will respond in a range from neutral to against you. The most trenchantly opposed people to a new idea are quite likely to tell you that they are behind you all the way. They then undermine a change initiative by simply doing nothing. They know that doing nothing can be excused by arguments like we had other priorities to work on or we really have to take our time to get this right, better not to rush things. By this means you can avoid criticism and not also resist change you don’t want.

Diffusion model for new ideas

New ideas create a challenge for anyone wanting to drive change. The key is to understand that it takes the time needed to get a common understanding and to allow genuine and imagined problems to be worked through. Shortcut the time and effort required to bring at least 2/3 of your people along with you and you should not be surprised to see change NOT happen.

Innovation or adoption cycles reflect the communication of ideas through a community and a well understood way in which those ideas gain acceptance
Innovation or adoption cycles reflect the diffusion of ideas through a community

The adoption/diffusion model shown here shows how novel (perhaps innovative) ideas are gradually taken up. Taking a new idea to a group of people who have not been thinking of it beforehand means you are most likely to have everyone from Early Adopter to Laggards unwilling to accept the idea without convincing. This means you have a high likelihood of 84% of people being quite unconvinced that your idea is a good one. This model applies to transformative communication, where you are trying to introduce change in attitudes, operations or similar behavioural change. The process for getting an idea through the cycle so that you have the Late Majority on board (assuming the idea was a good one in the first place) can be understood as the three R approach 1:

  1. Reinforcement. Find what people think and reinforce what they think already, moving the context toward your idea.
  2. Relevance. If the idea is not relevant to the people you want to convince it will be Filtered. Relevance talks to values, role and timing of communication.
  3. Relationship. Unless the receiver of a message trusts you they are much less likely to pay much attention to you.

Think of an audience when giving a presentation. First, you make sure to tap into something that you have in common with the audience and try to establish common ground. You make sure that what you are presenting is well targeted to the audience and what they think. Building a relationship with the audience allows you to be much more persuasive and the more connected you are with more of the audience members the more nods of agreement you get.

The overall aim of transformative communication should be to shift as many people as possible into the Early Majority as fast as you can achieve it.

Notes and Further Reading
  1. See Why Dont’ People Listen, Hugh Mackay Chapter Four

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