Communication can be hard, especially in the workplace. Sometimes the person speaking can’t distill what’s most important to share; other times, there’s so much information available that it requires the skill of the listener to draw out the takeaways. And often, what a person isn’t saying is important too.
The ability to hear people — truly hear them — is a highly valuable skill that can supercharge a career path, says Catherine Hernandez-Blades, Aflac’s Chief Brand and Communications Officer.
Her background is in technical and high-stakes fields where communication is key. Prior to her role at Aflac, Hernandez-Blades held communications leadership positions at a diverse set of companies: Flextronics, a technological manufacturer; defense firm Raytheon; and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, where her work included international projects.
"You’re working in highly regulated businesses that involve a number of governments in programs that literally are multiple percentage points of their GDPs,” Hernandez-Blades says. “It sharpened a number of my skills.”
Namely, that includes what she calls “listening between the lines.” Like reading between the lines, this skill takes into account context beyond the words themselves to gain a deeper understanding of what is being shared.
“In business, listening and being able to understand what someone is really saying or in some cases not saying ... is critical."
Here are a few of Hernandez-Blades’ top tips for learning to listen between the lines:
Wrestling a Firehose of Information
While at Lockheed Martin, Hernandez-Blades took part in an intense three-day meeting with representatives from the Czech Republic discussing the country’s defense goals – a conversation that involved long-term planning, government interests, big budgets and more.
Hernandez-Blades absorbed the details, taking copious notes throughout, and created a list of the five most relevant points to share at an internal Lockheed strategic planning meeting. “Not everyone in that room would be able to listen to all of that information – through translators, no less – and get down to brass tacks,” Hernandez-Blades says. “Being able to synthesize it down to the handful of nuggets required for project success is critical.”
It’s a skill Hernandez-Blades honed over the course of years, but she says it boils down to a key point: Stay laser-focused on the change you can effect, listening for actionable tasks you and your team can take to move things forward. “You have to understand it all, but capture the most relevant,” she says.
Hear What Is & What Is Not
Much of communication is nonverbal, Hernandez-Blades points out. Look for the moments when a person becomes animated in inflection or body language, as that signals they’re talking about a point important to them. She recommends practicing taking notes while retaining eye contact, so no body language is missed.
People may or may not explicitly cite what’s paramount to them, Hernandez-Blades notes. But “people tend to lead with, or repeat, the points that are most important.”
Cultural differences may also come into play, both domestically and overseas. For her work internationally, Hernandez-Blades trained with a State Department instructor on cultural nuances.
“But even in the [American] South, there are a lot of nuances to conversation: People are too polite to be direct,” Hernandez-Blades notes. “So you have to really pay attention to those folks. And if you go in there too bottom-line, too to-the-point, that’s not going to go over well at all.”
Hernandez-Blades had a mentor who advised her: “We have two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen and watch and listen some more before you come to a conclusion.”
That’s tougher than it sounds, Hernandez-Blades says. “It’s so hard not to jump in and say, ‘Oh, do you mean X Y and Z?’” she explains. “It takes a tremendous amount of focus. That kind of restraint requires practice.”
A special note for those in leadership roles: Managers set the tone for their teams, so if they share their points of view before listening, they can inadvertently undercut the conversation before it begins.
“One of the hardest things as a leader is not to walk in saying, ‘Here’s what I think, what do you think?’’ Hernandez-Blades says. “You need to give everyone around the table a chance to say their piece, and to truly hear them. You can bake your own opinions into the recap when appropriate, but now you’re doing it from an informed place.”
Synthesize Information Into Strategy
“The ability to peek around corners and see what’s next is huge,” Hernandez-Blades says. Her experience at a wide variety of companies helped her learn to identify burgeoning business trends before they become mainstream, but listening between the lines has also aided her in this effort.
It’s key to take what you’ve learned by listening and put it to work: If you can apply it to the needs of the business and figure out how you can assist in those wider goals, your career will benefit.