Opening Reflections

Take a Moment:

  • How effective do you think you are as a speaker?
    • Rate yourself on a scale of 1 – 10 where 1 is extremely poor and 10 is excellent.
    • Why do you rate yourself at that level?
    • List at least 3 reasons
  • Would others agree with your self-assessment?
    • Why do you think that?


What is Responsible Speaking

Having considered the listening side of the equation we now turn our attention to Responsible Speaking. Plainly, if the speaker fails to be clear about what is being said and fails to take steps to assure the listener understands then the communication will certainly fail.

In keeping with the Christ-centred servant leader’s focus on others, the responsible speaker needs to keep the people he is seeking to communicate with in mind. It’s all too easy for us to focus on our perspective and goals, as opposed to the needs of the people to whom we are speaking, and the challenges they have in receiving what we have to say. Remember Professor Wiio’s observation:

If you’re content with the message then it’s guaranteed to fail.

This is because if you are content with the message you styled it to satisfy yourself. You have failed to take into account the recipient and all those factors that work against his understanding.

As we look at the issue of being a Responsible Speaker we will consider some practices that you can employ to help improve the probability that understanding will be achieved.

There are two strategic actions undertaken by the Responsible Speaker and we will unpack these in this topic. As a Responsible Speaker you will:

  • Accept responsibility for ensuring that the listener understands what you wanted to communicate
  • Provide the listener with the opportunity to confirm they understand your message


Essentially this means that, being aware that what is in your mind to communicate is unlikely to be successfully communicated, you take additional steps to help the listener understand. The Responsible Speaker does not assume that understanding is achieved just because they have spoken Recall that:

Speech is a joint game between the talker and the listener against the forces of confusion. Unless both make the effort, interpersonal communication is quite hopeless.

Therefore, the Responsible Speaker seeks to establish a collaborative relationship with their listener, so that together they can achieve a shared understanding.

Being a Responsible Speaker

There are a number of factors that we can address that will enable us to be Responsible Speakers they include:

  • Make understanding the goal.
  • Make it interesting for your listener.
  • Develop a partnership with your listener.
  • Avoid overwhelming your listener.
  • Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues.
  • Address your listener’s learning style.


Recall the communication process we looked at earlier. Altogether these tips will help us improve our ability to convey what we intended to convey in the first place. We’ll now look at each of these in turn.

We will look at the matter of learning styles when look at message content in the next topic.

Make Understanding the Goal

Keep it simple

Have you ever been in a situation where you have thought “I understand all the words individually but I have no idea what they are talking about?” or the speaker’s message is full of technical terms with special meanings, jargon, acronyms and initials that we do not understand? I suspect we all have at one time or another.

In cross-cultural situations relying heavily on allusions[1] and using idioms[2] has the same effect. We thought about this when we considered the issues between different mother languages in the section on Communications Barriers and Filters.

The problem is that the speaker is so caught up in their situation or themselves, they give no consideration to their listener. They make what they say complicated and confusing, demonstrating a severe lack of emotional intelligence and concern for others. So as a rule, the best thing to do is to “keep it simple” and avoid jargon and technical terms, but if you can’t, make sure that you explain them. Also minimise the use of allusions and idioms unless you are certain the listener understands them.

Avoid assumptions

Assumptions are dangerous because they are things that are accepted as true or as being certain to happen, but there is no proof to support them. They are most times unstated, so the listener is often unaware of them. Thus your assumptions may be entirely invisible and so the listener is completely unaware of them. Likewise, the speaker may be entirely unaware of the listener’s assumptions. This may be very true in what are called “high context” cultures. The context is all the things everyone is supposed to know about; this leads to many things not being said. It is a problem for people from a low context culture where it is expected that the context is established for each interaction.

Assumptions underpin expectations, so the speaker may have a false expectations of what the listener understands or will do, and neither the listener nor the speaker are likely to be aware. The net result is at least failed communication.

Before you communicate, identify your assumptions and test them with the listener, especially if the matter is of significant importance or actions are expected as result. Also confirm that the listener is able to take the desired action, i.e. they know exactly what to do and have all that is necessary to enable them to take the action. Even then, on the grounds of Professor Wiio’s laws, make sure they know to ask you questions if they get into difficulty.

Give time for the listener to absorb the message

Too much information given too quickly can defeat effective communications because the listener doesn’t have time to absorb, process and confirm what is being said. So deliberately give them time to think by breaking up what you say into smaller segments with pauses that allow them to ask questions.

Confirm understanding

You can also actively confirm understanding by asking questions that allow the listener to reflect and summarise what they have heard and ask their own questions to clarify and confirm particular points.

When circumstance allow, perhaps the best way to confirm understanding is to have the listener demonstrate understanding by taking practical actions. This allows them to convert the information you have given them into knowledge because practice is one of the most powerful teachers. Your feedback will help them complete the task.

Avoid simply asking “Do you understand?” The listener will be thinking “Understand what specifically?” but will likely answer “Yes” anyway, even when they don’t.

Sometimes your listener will be afraid of interrupting you and your questions of them effectively gives them both permission and opportunity to do so.

Make it Interesting for your Listener

Include the listener

From the perspective of being a Christ-centred servant leader, communication is a collaborative process that is jointly and equally owned by both the listener and the speaker. It’s a dialogue; a conversation. From the speaker’s perspective the most important person in this collaborative partnership must be the listener, not the speaker. The goal is to convey understanding to the listener; the goal is not about providing opportunity for the speaker to speak.

So take positive steps to include the listener and develop the partnership. We’ve seen at least one way already, that is to ask and invite questions for clarification and to obtain detail. We are about to consider some more in the next few sections.

The greatest benefits of developing a collaborative partnership to achieve understanding are directly in line with the principles of servant leadership. Trust is developed and the listener is enabled to feel ownership of, and commitment to, the outcome. Both are vital qualities in the performance of highly effective teams. Such participation will also extend both the speaker’s and the listener’s self-awareness and awareness of the other person.

Engage the listener’s interest

It is important to keep the listener interested in what you have to say. Communication will certainly fail if they get distracted and stop listening. So think about how to present what you are saying in a way that generates interest. Some of the things we will look at shortly will help. Think about:

    • What you need to convey.
    • What they need from you.
    • How to present what you say so as to develop interest even intrigue.
    • Use “cliff-hangers” between segments – so when you pause they are in suspense wanting to know more. For some subjects this might be quite difficult, for instance servicing a car or cleaning a drain.
    • Consider learning to use stories to illustrate what you say or perhaps even to convey information, implications, possibilities and so forth.


Also use positive body language to engage and interest your listener. Although as we have discussed what is and isn’t positive or acceptable body language is culturally dependent.

Address the listener’s needs

This is perhaps the most important point. What you say must meet the listener’s needs in relation to the communication. If you know your audience well, then you may have a good idea as to what these needs are. You must consider what you want the listener to do and anticipate the questions they will have.

However, there will be some things that you don’t know about the listener (remember the JoHari Window we looked in the Leading with Insight module). This means that in order to increase the chances that your communication will be successful you must solicit these things from the listener, and then respond to them.

It is important to remember that just as you have a need, which gave rise to you speaking to them, so the listener has needs that must be met in order that they understand. As you are speaking, one of the things they will be using their spare 600 wpm capacity for is trying to answer this question: “What’s In This For Me?” (WIT-FM)  Which translates to two other questions: “Why is this conversation of benefit to me?” and “Why should I be interested?” These questions are not at all mercenary because the answer may be as simple as they want to know what you need them to do. The benefit to them is being able to take the appropriate action.

Therefore, if this WIT-FM question is important to the listener, then by definition it is important to you, the speaker. You need to inspire interest in them and make sure they understand why they need the knowledge you are seeking to impart.

In the context of being a Christ-centred servant leader, the leader’s goal is to be focused on the listener, seeking to enable them to achieve their full potential. Making sure the WIT-FM question is answered must therefore be a priority.

In the first place you may not know what the questions are and that is the importance of engaging in dialogue with the other person. Answering the questions requires a collaborative effort, a joint exploration of the matter in hand, that allows you both to ensure that understanding has been correctly conveyed and, the WIT-FM question is answered. This is the goal of responsible communications, where both listener and speaker take responsibility for achieving understanding.

Develop a Partnership with your Listener

Achieving successful understanding is a two-way thing. As we have discussed it requires a partnership between the speaker and the listener. Both speaker and listener have the same, shared goal – understanding.

As we’ve just seen, to achieve understanding requires an interaction between speaker and listener because there are things that unless the listener tells you won’t know. If you don’t know them you cannot address them. Consequently as the speaker, it is your responsibility to engage the listener in dialogue. Often, people with something to say forget this because they are only interested in themselves. That causes the listener to switch off. So remember, effective communication requires a partnership and with that comes a dialogue.

As we have already discussed, you can invite the participation of the listener, by providing them with opportunities to confirm and clarify their understanding, by inviting questions as you go along. You can also ask questions designed to discover if you are getting your message over.

Avoid Overwhelming your Listener

Be deliberate

A quality communication is designed to do the job intended and is generally succinct, providing just what is needed. Such communications require thought and discipline in preparation and delivery.

We have all probably come across people who just talk, they spew out words, they digress, and they don’t get to the point. Such people inundate and overwhelm their listeners like a tsunami.  If the necessary information is in what they say, it is buried in their confused and confusing message. Even if the listener wants to understand it is made very difficult for them. As a Responsible Speaker take time to prepare your message and be disciplined in its delivery so that you do not overwhelm your listener; be deliberate.

Take time

Some people rush the message. They appear, speak very quickly and disappear; it’s like having been visited by a whirlwind and the listener is left bewildered wondering what that was all about. Focus on the listener and remember you want them to understand. Take time over what you have to say. If you or they do not have the time then use a shorter communication first: just outline the issue and arrange to meet when time is available.

If it’s a complicated topic, and you know the dialogue could be lengthy, then it will probably be best to arrange a time to meet to have the conversation.

Speak in shorter segments

As we have already discussed, speaking in shorter segments is a means of giving the listener time to absorb what you have to say. It also provides opportunity for them to clarify their understanding. This is a process that naturally slows down the delivery of information and reduces the likelihood of overwhelming the listener, because it shares control of the communication flow with them.

Speaking in shorter segments will normally require some preparation and discipline in delivery, especially if you are a “whirlwind” type communicator.

Follow up with the detail

If understanding requires lots of detail or grasping complexities, then it is unlikely that one conversation can achieve understanding anyway. Plan a follow-up meeting in which detail can be provided and explored.

Pay Attention to your Listener’s Non-Verbal Cues

As you are speaking remember to focus on the listener, engage them in the conversation and watch out for their expression and posture as you speak, and their tone and inflection when they speak.

Remember that around 55% of our communications is via our posture and expression. Watch the listener’s body language they will communicate a lot without even opening their mouth. This will guide you in how you engage them in dialogue. You are looking for cues that tell you things like:

  • This is not a good time.
  • I am supposed to be somewhere else.
  • This is taking too long.
  • I have to go now.
  • I don’t understand.
  • I am puzzled?
  • Why is this relevant to me?
  • What does he want?
  • I am curious.
  • I am interested.
  • I need to know more.
  • And so on……

When you read the signals adjust your approach accordingly.

Similarly, when they speak their tone of voice and the inflexions will convey information. Respond to them and adjust what you say and do to achieve understanding.

Failure to respond to the unspoken messages can mean the difference between success and failure.

Planning the Message

In the light of what we have learned about being a Responsible Speaker we now have some tips on preparing the message.


Clearly, and as precisely as possible, identify your purpose and how you will know that it has been achieved.


Having identified the objective, determine what information needs to be conveyed to the listener in order that they will understand what is required and be able to play their role in achieving the objective. Don’t forget to consider how to make your requests for their action. Also remember to look at the issue from their perspective so you can begin answering their WIT-FM questions.


Give your message a clear and simple flow and structure, minimising jargon, explaining technical terms, avoiding allusions and idioms, especially in a cross-cultural setting. Consider how your listener prefers to receive information; we will consider this, and message structure, in a moment.


Consider the best way to confirm that your listener has understood. You need to use open questions that probe their understanding e.g. “Just to be sure that I have communicated what I intended, can you tell me what you think I have said?”

In complex situations there may be other ways to confirm understanding. For instance, with a complex task you might ask the listener to plan their action and check the plan with you. This will inevitably enable them to identify gaps in their knowledge and understanding.


In situations where there is lots of information and detail to be conveyed, or there is only time to introduce the matter, consider and plan how you and your listener will complete your communication and arrive at understanding.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have not had time or opportunity to plan your message, you can engage with your listener to work through these 5 steps together. From the Christ-centred servant leadership perspective this would be excellent practice as it engages the other person and draws on their wisdom. This will enable them to have greater degree of ownership of the goal and outcome.

Structuring the Message

There are many ways to structure the message. The following tips suggest one way which takes into account preferences about receiving information and learning. It is a simple, easy to remember approach based on four questions and it provides a sensible flow for the main sections of the message. If the message is long or complicated then the lengthy sections will need to be split into segments as already discussed.

These four points can be used as a structure for most communication:


Everyone needs to know why this matter is important but some will not be able to engage with you unless this is spelt out for them. So explain why it is important to them. In part this is addressing the WIT-FM question.  Give reasons and if possible examples of why it is important. This information will include the response or action required by the listener.


Everyone needs the essential information but some people are happy to receive it in outline and sort the rest out for themselves, some will need lots of detail. In any event you will need to answer the question “What is it all a about?” by providing the necessary background and detail.


This addresses the listener’s “What do I need to do?” question. Some people will just need the required outcome to be explained, others may need more detail about exactly what they have to do and when they have to do it. This is where you need to know your audience and be in a position to engage the listener in a dialogue until they are happy they can do what is required.

What If?

“How Can I learn for myself?” Not everyone has this question but answering it anyway may be helpful. Some people work best when they can go away and learn what it is all about and what needs to be done for themselves. They need a head start by being pointed in the right direction. They may also need a challenge.

Helping Your Listeners Hear

We each have a preference for the manner in which we learn. This determines the best way for us to receive information and so it affects how that information ought to be presented to us for the best results.  In general each individual is mix of these types but one may be their strongest preference.

Verbal learners

These people prefer to receive information in the form of words, either written or spoken. They can process these forms effectively. They are happy receiving documentation or receiving spoken instruction.

Visual learners

These people like to receive information in the form of images, pictures and charts. They help them understand. Written or spoken instruction is less effective and more difficult for them. When they receive documentary information they need images and charts to help them make sense of it.

Kinaesthetic learners

Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn by doing. They need to get their “hands on” and give it a go. This implies they need to put into practice what they learn as they learn it, they will make mistakes but without practicing they find it difficult to achieve understanding.

We tend to think that words are everyone’s preference, but that is not the case and sensitivity to how others prefer to learn will help us to help them understand the message we are trying to convey.


Take a Moment

Using the Responsible Speaking Questionnaire from Appendix B of the Student Notes download, prayerfully perform a self-assessment on your responsible speaking skills. Then, if you feel able, ask some other people that you trust for their assessment too (see Appendix B for a questionnaire).  Average their scores.

    • Is there a difference between your self-assessment and the assessment of others?
    • What does the difference tell you?
    • How could you improve each element by 2 points  (or achieve a minimum score of 7)
    • Work out an action plan and practice those improvement steps over the next 6 to 12 weeks and then re-run the assessment.


Take a Moment:

Consider something you need to explain, or have recently explained, to someone.

  • Practice using the four question structure and plan your message.
    • Consider the preferred learning style of your listener, and work out how to present your message to them so that they understand more easily.
    • Try out the message with the listener and get their feedback.
    • How did it go?

What did you learn?

[1] An allusion is a figure of speech meant to call something to mind without directly mentioning the subject ( ); e.g. “I was surprised his nose was not growing like Pinocchio’s.” This refers to the story of Pinocchio, where his nose grew whenever he told a lie. It is from The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi. It means the person to whom the allusion is applied is liar.

[2] An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not literally deducible from the individual words ( ); e.g. if, in English, we say someone was “over the moon” we mean they were delighted and very happy.