NLP & Rapport (2): Communicating, talking… and listening?

Being ‘talked at’

It was a fairly dramatic example of being talked at. We were chatting on the phone and she was telling me about something. I attempted to ask about a point she’d just made – but the flow of talking continued unabated.

I then used my favourite technique for getting somebody’s attention (it rarely fails) – I used her name (let’s call her Helen)

‘Helen?’ She carried on.

Tried again. ‘Helen, can I ask you something?’

She carried on.

I thought, okay, lets go for it here:

‘Helen? Helen?’ (Still she carried on).

I increased the volume ‘Helen? Helen’ (She carried on regardless.)

In all I used her name no less than 7 times in a row. (And still she carried on.)

I then said quite loudly ‘I wonder if she can hear me or if there’s a fault on the line??’

Finally she stopped. And laughed!

Curious, I asked had she heard my original question (Yes, but she’d forgotten it) and my multiple use of her name (‘oh, yes, but I thought it was only 4 or 5 times – and I wanted to finish…’)

This article is part of a series on Rapport:

  1. What is rapport?
  2. Do you communicate with – or talk-at?
  3. How we learn to create rapport
  4. Rapport is about give and take
  5. We have to invest in relationships
  6. Don’t use body-language to create rapport

‘I’m more important than you’

Helen hadn’t trained in NLP with Pegasus. It would have been disappointing if she had – since engaging with people rather than talking at them is a fundamental part of our NLP style of rapport.  In all of our courses we explore the concept of ‘communicating’ and consider whether communicating is about delivering information or engaging with somebody.

We also explore the relationship that is implied by ‘talking at’ someone versus ‘engaging with’ e.g. talking at a person indicates that we feel more important than them – we feel that our views are more important then theirs.

‘Talking at’ also telegraphs the non-verbal message that we do not even want to better get to know the other person or get into rapport with them through learning about their views, tastes, wishes, motivation and so on. We just want to impress them.

Message received isn’t always message intended

I don’t really think that these were Helen’s thoughts or motivation. From what I know if her, I doubt they are. But the old saying ‘message intended isn’t always message received’ does apply.

It’s not what you want people to experience it’s what they actually experience.

If I don’t mind being talked down to I’ll put up with this and keep my views to myself. But many of us, whether as friends or colleagues or customers, will feel patronised or insulted in such situations. And may decide to seek more equal relationships elsewhere.

The ‘Talking at’ approach in action

How do some people develop this thoughtless style? Often it’s because our roles models were mainly of the talking-at variety.

We were raised to endure being talked at.

At home we were talked at by our parents and just about any adult we met. At school and college our teachers and lecturers generally talked at us – with perhaps a tiny handful of memorable exceptions.

In organisations we can see the effect of having such role models in those amazingly boring Death-by-PowerPoint presentations where we have to endure being talked at by dis-embodied voices in dimly lit rooms.

It’s also seen in the ‘I don’t want excuses – I just want results’ style of manager who drives their agenda through regardless of feedback from their team. It’s seen in those team meetings where only the loudest get listened to.

It’s even seen, despite NLP being a great source of advanced communication skills, in a certain style of NLP training course where the Big Name delivers pre-digested truths-to-be-absorbed to the assembled masses rather than engage with them in a process of real learning and discovery.

Some will put up with it – others won’t

But not everyone stays stuck with their childhood role modelled behaviours. Many of us recognise that talking at people doesn’t make for close and mutually respectful relationships – and duly alter our approach.

In our teens or young adulthood we begin to recognise that the people who will put up with being talked at tend to be the ones with low opinions of themselves and their views. The people with higher opinions of themselves will either tolerate us or withdraw. They won’t get close to us – why settle for being patronised!

So we soon recognise the choice: change our approach and begin engaging with people – or settle for a following of dependent groupies who are happy to listen to our pontifications.

How do you rate?

It’s worth observing or getting feedback on how good you are at engaging with people; at creating rapport. Or even, if you’re brave enough, to ask them ‘Do you think I talk at people more than I listen to them?’

Quite apart from the many benefits of truly engaging with people, talking at them tends to put them off at the very least. Most people feel patronised when being talked at. And this is not a useful emotion to evoke – and the antithesis of rapport.

In our former online Anger Poll joint second place was consistently shared by two triggers: Automated switchboards and Being tailgated.

They each rate 10% of all votes cast.

So what is the trigger which people find most annoying? And which people have kept at the top of the poll for years?

Yep, you’ve guessed it – being spoken to in a patronising manner. This one is way out in the lead with 31% of all votes.


  1. Reg on 25th February 2010 at 11:38 PM

    I agree with your Tom Hopkins’ quote – it reminded of one of my favourites: About 60 years ago Bert H Schlain, another US sales guru and author of Big League Salesmanship, used to warn salespeople about talking rather than listening ‘Samson slew 10,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. And every day 1000’s of orders are killed in the same way’!

  2. Clinton Skakun on 25th February 2010 at 11:08 PM

    Tom Hopkins said “The person who talks the most learns the least.”

    Haha, I love this: “But not everyone stays stuck with their childhood role modelled behaviours”

  3. Anonymous on 26th February 2010 at 12:20 AM

    So I’m not the only one who hates being talked down to then 🙂

  4. Steve Sharkey on 26th February 2010 at 9:27 AM

    This sounds just like someone who I used to work with. I was warned but couldn’t believe it so when a group of us were travelling between company sites I tried to break into her monologue. I waited for a pause and when one arrived I started adding my thoughts on the subject – only for her to finish taking her breath and start up again. I glanced in my rear view mirror and noticed the grins on their faces but was determined not to give up so I continued talking. But so did she. I simply could not keep it up, try as I did, I found the two streams of words distracting to my thinking and I felt so rude for talking at the same time. I just couldn’t understand how she could do it at the time. In hind sight I don’t think she even heard me… A brilliant mind but I restricted myself to reading her written reports from that moment on.

  5. Reg on 26th February 2010 at 9:45 AM

    Thanks for a great LOL first thing in the morning, Steve. (Your closing line did it.)

    In NLP we look for the motivation driving a behaviour and your ‘brilliant mind’ comment suggests a hypothesis in the case of your ex-colleague. Great to encounter such minds – it’s just a pity that, so often, they don’t seem to realise they don’t have a monopoly on brilliance.

  6. Tudor Barker on 26th February 2010 at 11:13 PM

    I was involved with a meeting with Social Services, 2 voluntary organisations, a teacher and several other organisations, and a young person whose future everyone was discussing.

    There was a barrage of questions and answers, and general hullabaloo, this went on for some time.

    There was a slight pause, and I spoke across the table to the young person: “what do you think about all this?”

    You could cut the silence in the room with a knife, but the smile on the young persons face said it all.


  7. maria on 2nd January 2011 at 6:17 PM

    your website is v informative. thanks for helping us.
    from: maria anwar khan