“Listen to understand, not to reply. ” With Lauren Sergy

Listen to understand, not to reply. You don’t need to have an answer to every statement. When we’re listening only to figure out what to say, we’re usually completely inside our own heads instead of really paying attention to everything the other person is saying…or not saying. Focusing on understanding — deeply understanding on multiple […]

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Listen to understand, not to reply. You don’t need to have an answer to every statement. When we’re listening only to figure out what to say, we’re usually completely inside our own heads instead of really paying attention to everything the other person is saying…or not saying. Focusing on understanding — deeply understanding on multiple levels — what the other person is trying to tell you helps you stay in the moment with them. That will help you pick up on subtext and unspoken information they may be sending your way.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingLauren Sergy.

Public speaking and communication expert Lauren Sergy has helped thousands of people become more effective leaders by developing critical communication skills such as persuasion, presentation, and executive presence. Lauren tackles tough communication issues with humor and candor. She has worked with clients and audiences in Canada, the US, the UK, and Europe including KPMG, T-Mobile, Grant Thornton, Northern Trust Global Asset Management, and many more. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in English, and a certificate in Management Development; she teaches programs on business communication at the University of Alberta. Her book, The Handy Communication Answer Book, was featured on Library Journal’s Best Reference Books of 2017 list. You can learn more about Lauren and her work at

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, where I still live today. I’m the youngest of seven children, and everyone in my family is pretty outspoken, so from a young age I knew the importance of having good communication chops along with the ability to read a room. I was an introverted child, but I loved theatre, satire, and politics — and I think it was the influence of those three things that also made me oddly good at making impromptu speeches. I was always sensitive to other people’s moods and non-verbal communication. As a kid that made me rather high strung, and I had a hard time relating to other kids my age. Thankfully, I mellowed out as I got older and gained more confidence. I spent my teens immersed in martial arts and acting, two interests which still have a direct influence on my work today.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I finished grad school, I was convinced that I was going to be a career librarian (my Master’s degree is in library studies). But as my early career in the library field progressed, I was always the one being asked to give presentations and talks, or to speak with difficult stakeholders, or persuade reluctant people to try a new process or software. After a while, people began asking me to give training sessions on presentation skills, because they wanted to give my style of dynamic presentation. They also wanted to know how I was able to manage irritated audiences and get along with difficult people so well. In one memorable situation, my boss and I were headed to a contentious meeting, when he turned to me and said “people tell you things. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a good thing.” That’s when it hit me that my abilities as a speaker and communicator were tied to my emotional intelligence and my skills as a listener. And I knew that those were all things that could be taught and learned. I already had a robust approach to speaking and communication, and a great deal of knowledge and experience through my academic studies and eclectic work experience. I decided to take the plunge and posted an ad in my areas online classifieds as a public speaking and communication coach. That was how this career got started, and I’ve never looked back since.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There’s no one person or story — I’ve been helped and encouraged by many people in many ways. My parents were and are an enormous source of support and encouragement. My father built several businesses, and he always treated my business as something real and viable, even in the early stages. Both he and my mom have celebrated every success and listened to every tantrum along the way. My husband has also been a rock for me from the start, and he’s been central to my success — he was a stay-at-home dad for many years so I had the flexibility I needed to build my business. In many situations when I felt like giving up, he was the one to tell me to hold steady and carry on. My clients have been universally encouraging — some of my earliest clients were the ones who told me to hike my rates so they reflected the value I was bringing them! One client in particular, Marie, was instrumental in helping me expand internationally, and she has been a supporter and sponsor of my work for years. I’m grateful to them all.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

This will seem minor, but anyone who speaks on stage will cringe! I was at an out-of-town keynote speaking engagement. I pack very light, and when I was getting ready in my hotel room on the morning of my talk, one of the buttons on the front of my blouse broke, turning my shirt from a respectable, professional look to an…ah….plunging style of neckline. Normally I always have back-up clothes, but this time — of course — I had forgotten to pack them! I couldn’t fix the button, and my suit jacket was barely able to cover the gap. I begged some duct tape off the hotel staff and literally taped myself into my shirt so there would be no “wardrobe malfunctions” while I was on stage.

Lesson learned: always use a checklist when packing your bags! More broadly, make sure your backups or fail-safe systems are always in place, and be diligent in checking the small details in your work.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Don’t throw all your eggs in one basket — be sensible when building your career or business and keep your options open. There’s lots of praise out there for people who go all-in on one thing, quitting their day jobs, investing everything they have into a single enterprise, or leaving behind everything to pursue a “dream” opportunity. I don’t go for that; staying in my job while I slowly built my business was what allowed me to create quality work, go after the right clients, and experiment without undue financial pressure. It gave me time to try things out while still providing for my family. Don’t be in a rush to hit some arbitrary success marker or income level — play the long game and create something robust, sustainable, and high-quality. That goes for whether you’re building a career within a company or creating your own business.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s work. I’ve been reading his blog for years, regularly listen to his podcast Akimbo, and have read most of his books. His work is both practical and philosophical. It resonates so much not only because of it’s applicability to communication, but because it’s also saturated in life and business lessons. So I’ve found him a source of professional, practical, and personal inspiration and knowledge. I especially recommend his books All Marketers Tell Stories and The Icarus Deception.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I’m going to put on my public speaking super-geek hat here. My favorite quote, which I apply to several areas of my life, is Cicero’s statement that an orator’s purpose is “docere, delectare, et movere” — meaning “to teach, to delight, and to move”. I look at that quote not only to guide me in what I create and how I work with my clients and audiences, but also how I approach many of my life choices. It’s a recipe for joy — make things and bring things into your life that teach you something new, bring you delight, and move your emotions in some way. It’s simple and helps me make choices that are good for my business, my clients, my family, and myself.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Right now I’m completing a really fun book called This Is Your Brain on Video Conference. It’s written for professionals who are both fed up with virtual meetings but who also was to develop some real polish in the medium. I’m also in the process of (finally!) launching my self-paced online course Business Presentation Mastery, which is the online version of the powerful public speaking skills training I do with my top-end clients. It’s been over a year in the making, and it will help professionals transform how they think about, develop, and deliver their presentations — it will bring them the public speaking confidence and skill they’ve always wanted.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

Powerful, persuasive communication and public speaking is strongly dependent on Emotional Intelligence. If you want to be able to persuade someone or move an audience — whether it’s an audience of 1 or 1000 — you need to be able to see the situation from their point of view (even if you don’t agree with them), understand and appreciate their emotions, and adjust your approach based on the emotional signals they’re giving you in the moment. I’ve been working with Emotional Intelligence as a core communication skill for years and applying its principals in practical

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive different emotional signals — usually non-verbal — and respond in a way that’s suitable for the people you’re speaking to in that moment. It involves being able to pick up on subtle emotional cues as well as being able to strategically give off appropriate emotional cues yourself.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Our emotional brains and our logical brains are often at odds with one another. Typical intelligence emphasizes the ability to parse out facts, data, statistics, and other kinds of “hard” information. Emotional Intelligence involves appreciating the complexity of how humans interpret and deal with information, and it doesn’t always make logical sense. Often when we’re talking about “intelligence” we are talking about to think about a thing. With emotional intelligence, we don’t focus on the thing, we also look to the person — to how someone thinks about a thing.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Emotional Intelligence helps you tap into subtext, the unspoken bits of communication. It helps you develop a much more nuanced approach and understanding of people and information, and it can help reduce communication barriers. I was once working with a leader who couldn’t figure out why his team was so reluctant to adopt a new internal operations procedure. Everything looked good on paper, the change made logical sense, and whenever he spoke to his team, they would agree with him. But they were dragging their feet when executing the changes. I spent time with him going over all the conflicting emotions that could be present with his team — they could be feeling like their jobs are under threat, like the changes were happening because they weren’t doing good work, that they couldn’t take on these complex changes, and so on. I sat in on a meeting with his team, and indeed, they all spoke very positively about the changes. But the signals they were sending told a different story — lack of eye contact, lots of fidgeting, sighing, tension — they were shouting their discomfort but no one wanted to come out and tell their boss what they were thinking. The leader was so focused on the information on paper that he missed the unspoken information coming from his team. Once he learned to see those signals, he was able to open more honest conversations with his team and deal with their unvoiced concerns.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.

Emotional Intelligence is one of the reasons I’ve been able to build my business and help my clients. In one job, my boss told me “People tell you things. I don’t know why, but they do. And that’s a good thing.” I realized that people were open with me because I could perceive when they were holding back and knew how to gently tease information out of them. This was especially useful when working with people in senior leadership positions where admitting to things like stage fright or public speaking anxiety could cause them to lose face. That kind of perception has helped me pinpoint communication friction points and help teach my clients how to work through them.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Emotional Intelligence helps people develop a much greater range of nuance and expression in their communication. Learning how to read people’s emotions helps you adapt your approach to situations and empathize with the people you are speaking with; that leads to greater trust in business relationships. It also helps you be a more captivating, dynamic, persuasive communicator. That, of course, gives you a significant edge in your communication. Finally, it helps you bring clarity to your communication; when we can communicate from an emotional as well as a logical standpoint, we can help ensure both parties better understand one another.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

Emotional intelligence helps you see past the surface of what people are saying (or aren’t saying). It helps you identify whether someone has conflicting feelings about something, how strongly they’re feeling something, or whether or not there is something else they’re worried about. Emotional Intelligence requires you to pay attention and listen deeply to the other person, which is important for having good relationships.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

We don’t just use Emotional Intelligence to determine what other people are feeling, we use it on ourselves as well. Having good Emotional Intelligence can help you tease apart your own feelings on a matter and think more fully and deeply about something. It also helps you identify what emotions you may be experiencing, especially ‘early warning’ type emotions, which can be a powerful clue as to when you need to change some part of your life or engage in more conscious self-care.

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Listen to understand, not to reply. You don’t need to have an answer to every statement. When we’re listening only to figure out what to say, we’re usually completely inside our own heads instead of really paying attention to everything the other person is saying…or not saying. Focusing on understanding — deeply understanding on multiple levels — what the other person is trying to tell you helps you stay in the moment with them. That will help you pick up on subtext and unspoken information they may be sending your way.

2) Pay attention to non-verbal signals. We usually show our deeper or more complex emotions through physical or non-verbal signals. Pay attention to things like eye contact, shoulder tension, hand movement. Are their eyes locked on you or roving around? Are their eyebrows and the space around their eyes up, giving them a bright expression? Are their shoulders relaxed or bunched up? Are they fidgeting or rubbing their hands together? These signals will give you clues as to what emotions — both positive and negative — they may be experiencing.

3) Rephrase what someone says, then ask for confirmation. When you’re growing your emotional intelligence, you want to make sure you aren’t blithely misinterpreting people’s signals. The best way to make sure you’re understanding and interpreting someone properly is to ask them! For example, when someone is assuring you that a situation is fine but they’re coming across as super uncomfortable, provide them your interpretation and see if you got it right. “It sounds like the situation is under hand, but you’re concerned that it could change quickly — did I get that right?” The person can confirm or correct you, and you’ve also just invited them to a more thorough conversation.

4) Show your own emotions. Knowing what emotions other people need to see from you and then figuring out how to signal them is one of the most powerful things you can do to use emotional intelligence as a communication tool. We’re giving important information to people when we show them our emotions, but it takes self-control, self-awareness, and understanding of others to know what emotion to show and when. Being willing to let people in on how you’re feeling is a way of being authentic and open in your communication, but it doesn’t mean being a loose cannon. Think of what the other person needs to see, what you need to communicate, and strategically use your own body language or the way you speak to make sure they can “see” your emotions as well. This is an excellent way to give the impression of sincerity and transparency.

5) Watch for contrasting or conflicting signals. If people tell you one thing but their body language indicates they’re feeling something else, that’s a sign that there’s some strong emotion going on (that can be good or bad!). In these cases, you need to dial your emotional awareness up and pay close attention to what might be going on below the surface. We can’t take words at face value, so ask them additional questions about what’s going on and see if you can get a clearer picture out of them.

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

I think that our educational systems neglect most aspects of strategic communication, and that certainly includes Emotional Intelligence. When watching a video clip, have students talk about what the people in the clip might be feeling and ask them what the person is doing to show they’re having those feelings. Have students discuss how the way they feel about a piece of information affects the way they think about that information, or about how people’s circumstances will lead them to feel different ways about people’s topics. Get kids to engage in the arts, especially spoken arts like public speaking and theatre, so they can experiment with communicating and experimenting with emotion in a deliberate way!

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would create a movement around information literacy and conscious communication. I believe that the spread of misinformation is one of the biggest threats to society and one of the greatest tools of oppression, and helping people learn to think critically, tease apart the media they consume, and communicate with clarity is one way of helping us overcome this. It’s also key to helping people take charge in their lives, challenge systems that keep them down, and create more equality across socio-economic classes.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

My dream lunch partner is Seth Godin, but that’s a lottery I’ll be very surprised to win! 😉

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I put out original videos and articles on important communication skills. The best way that people can keep up with my work is to head to and sign up in the pop-up box to get my latest videos and articles!

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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