How to Get People to Listen When You Have Something Important to Say 

Three influential studies on being listened to and liked. 

by James Dennin
Magnolia Pictures

There’s a delicate art to getting people to listen when you have something important to say. Those difficulties are compounded in the digital age, where there are all sorts of different platforms for reaching people and different ways to communicate (or be misunderstood). Just look at how worked up people get about how many exclamation points we should be putting in our emails.

One notable person who knows how to change it up is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has been ramping up his Twitter presence of late in replies (they’re usually replies) that are at turns confrontational and mundane. It’s hard to separate the manic Tweeting from the incoming deadline to produce 5,000 Model 3 cars per week. That ramp-up has been dramatic, with reports of sabotage, fires on the line, a messy lawsuit, and spammy short-sellers who Musk has taken up the habit of responding to directly. All this extra Tweeting is yielding mixed results, according to a meta analysis from theAutowise, who found that the more Musk tweets the more his followers peace out.

This of course begs the question how can you get control of the room when you need to, without looking thirsty, or without coming across as a dick? How can we, for lack of a better word, get people to like us and sympathize with us when it’s crunch time? Keep these three studies in mind.

The more Musk Tweets, the more likely his followers get to peace out. 


3. Master the Formula For Surprise

There’s a reason three guys walk into a bar, or why there were three little pigs: Trios allow you to establish expectations, mount them, and then defy them, Jeffrey Loewenstein, a professor at the University of Illinois whose research centers on creativity and surprise, tells Inverse.

But there’s a deeper reason why it’s important to master this formula, he explains. Surprise makes us want to learn more, a particularly important tool for people who are trying to get an important message across, like, say, the importance of developing emission-free energy. This hidden payoff helps explain Musk’s predilection for wearing Rick and Morty T-shirts in shareholder presentations, or the sassy tweet replies in German.

“Absolutely Elon Musk is doing this,” Lowenstein says. “Coming from an influential speaker with a fair amount of credibility, this alternative perspective suggests there is more worth checking out. It’s one that is going to make his actions and his organizations seem more impressive.”

If it’s good enough for Musk, it’s good enough to consider giving a try. Next time you have to give a speech or a talk, remember the rule of three. Toasts are the perfect place to practice: A playful tease, followed by a playful tease, followed by an earnest profession love and admiration for the happy couple or retiring colleague.

2. Practice Intellectual Humility

A recent study suggests we could all stand to practice more intellectual humility. Put simply, intellectual humility is the under-appreciated art of recognizing that you’re more likely to be wrong about stuff than you think you are. Liberals, conservatives, atheist scientists, and deep believers are all equally susceptible to this phenomenon, Mark Leary, a neuroscientist at Duke, tells Inverse.

“There’s no reason to think you’re correct in any more than 50 percent of your disagreements,” Leary said. “The average person thinks it’s 67 percent.”

This unfortunate human tendency to be completely full of it all the time is one of the reasons that work is so difficult, Leary explained, because intellectually humble people don’t always win the day. When you’re kicking ideas around the conference room, it’s often the person who just won’t back down. In our own lives, Leary said it’s important to be more aware that we’re less likely to be right than we think we are. As to your next meeting with the office asshole, he had another piece of advice.

“Pick your battles,” he says. “Wait for the case when you’re unusually certain you’re right, particularly if you can enlist the cooperation of others.”

1. Have More Conversations IRL

The seminal text on being liked and listened to is arguably Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Though originally published in 1936, it’s still in wide circulation today thanks to its utterly unobjectionable thesis that being liked is about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

But this week, some researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the University of Chicago and Northeastern University, published a new study that identified a number of shortcomings in Carnegie’s theory. After a series of 25 (!) experiments designed to separate ego from accuracy, researchers found that our guesses as to what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes is yet another thing that we’re likely to be overconfident (i.e. wrong) about. You have to talk to people to really gain insights into their experiences.

Which is all to say that being successful and influential in work, or in life, has a lot to do with showing up for people when we don’t have to, and having real conversations with them about our lives.

In other words, the secret to nailing your wedding toast or winning over your colleagues is less about your winning arguments or searing wit than it is about how willing you are to trek out to your friends Thursday night 11 p.m. improv show, or that Monday birthday party, or that “pick your brain” coffee with the thirsty college sophomore. One theme from the research on being liked and respected is that we could all probably be doing a little better.

Related Tags