Why it’s important to look the part and learn to listen

Communication, done well, combines an intelligent sense of presentation with a sustained ability to listen.

This is not new. But it’s also clear that our interest in presentation – our exterior appearance – can often work against our ability to communicate. Because we focus on our credibility, we neglect to listen.

It’s important to sustain both: a persuasive exterior and the ability to listen.


We have to let appearances slip, and embrace imperfection.

We can only allow ourselves to let appearances slip once we’ve mastered them.

Before we begin to even exchange words, our appearances have already begun to communicate. The moment we enter a room, we’ve initiated a conversation through the ways we’ve decided to present ourselves.

And nailing the exterior saves us the energy of having to reverse negative biases later on. Meet a client wearing jeans and an untucked shirt, and you’ll likely to be at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Similarly, the physician’s white coat signifies power and rank. The waiter doesn’t have to wear the apron, and the monk doesn’t have to wear the habit.

So again. Appearances matter. Being the first and most immediate way we communicate with one another (or would that be smell?).

But it’s not all. Some time ago my nephew was in hospital after a series of grueling operations, and a renowned surgeon came in to discuss options. He wore the white coat well, was attended by a gaggle of assistant physicians, and displayed a subtle superciliousness.

It was as if he had encased himself in a professional cocoon. He spoke his text, but hardly listened to our voiced (and unvoiced) concerns.

The fact that appearance is not all is best demonstrated when we watch a debate, where everything hinges on the pertinence of the exchanges, which in turn depend on three pivotal factors.

The first goes without saying: preparation.

The second and third factors – which will allow for the smooth deployment of prepared material – are appearance and listening.

Appearance connotes respect for a given situation. Listening connotes respect for the people in it.

Preparation is hampered by flat delivery, limited vocabulary, careless syntax and unsuitable dress. But it’s quite simply invalidated if you are unable to take the opponent into account. The best communicators are those who are rehearsed enough to be able to momentarily step out of the trappings of their role in order to focus on others.

That’s to say that a good debater – or doctor, or consultant, or lawyer – has prepared enough to be able to comfortably respect both the given situation and the people in it – losing sight of neither.

Such a person has enough faith in their preparation to be willing to risk going off-script.

This flexibility, in being predicated on the other, reveals a certain authentic respect in the other. It shows that we are willing to have the other person encroach on and possibly trouble our prepared appearance.

How do we become better listeners? The actor and teacher Sanford Meisner thought that listening meant the capacity to stop thinking. We have to let down our guard.

And for writer Georges Bataille, communication is an act of transgression.

This sounds counter-intuitive. But far from allowing us to remain hermetically sealed in our positions, true listening forces us to break appearances and make a (dangerous) move towards the other.

I think that good listeners are persuasive because you sense that they are doing something most people don’t: taking a bit of a leap of faith. And you sense that in order to do this they must be well-prepared. And as a result of all this, you end up feeling like you’re in good hands.

It’s a cohesive rather than coercive mechanism.

What’s transgressive or thoughtless (if we follow Bataille and Meisner) is a slight shift away from appearances and towards authenticity. And the more prepared we are, the more we can do this. Preparation is the solid support that allows us to engage in this kind of listening while knowing that we will remain credible and competent.



Photo courtesy of Stocksnap
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