Hello, my friends.
This is a profound lesson I learned long, long ago about the importance of communication and how it has very little to do with your mouth.
The famous author George Bernard Shaw has what I think is the best quote about communication. He says, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
That is to say, the message intended is not necessarily the message received – that what person A said and meant is perceived by person B in a different way.
If you want to be an effective communicator, these three practices will separate you from the vast majority of less-than-effective communicators out there in the world.
1. Listen for understanding.
It sounds self-evident. Why else would you be listening if you weren’t listening for understanding? Think about your own experiences. Have you ever been speaking to someone who didn’t appear to be listening to you? Maybe they’re looking at you. Maybe they’re nodding their head. But they look like they’re waiting for you to pause so they can say something in response, or maybe say something that has nothing to do with what it is you’re saying.
Certainly, if there’s a disagreement or debate, I don’t think person A is listening to person B or vice-versa.
But in this scenario, I am talking about normal everyday business conversation or personal conversation. Listen for understanding. Control that part of your brain that wants to process what they’re saying so you can agree or disagree, and segue off of what it is they’re saying to add some particular anecdote. Don’t do that. Resist the temptation to do that, and have the discipline required to concentrate on what it is they’re saying so you truly understand.
Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
It is very difficult for two people to both develop an understanding of one another simultaneously. The best way to do that is for the first person to understand the second, then for the second to understand the first. If you try to do them simultaneously, neither one of you will understand the other, sad to say.
2. Confirm your understanding.
Once you believe you’ve understood the person, give them some evidence that you have. You say, “Hey, let me play that back. If I understood you correctly, you feel this way, or you thought this, or you did X, Y and Z. Or you interpreted that piece of information this way.”
If you’re correct in your paraphrasing of what it is they’ve communicated to you, they are going to say, “Exactly! That’s right. You got it.”
It’s important to note here that when you paraphrase, when you play it back for them, it doesn’t mean you agree with them. You may, but you may not. All you are doing is acknowledging and validating that you have understood them.
The best examples I’ve ever heard have been the pilot and control tower. The pilot says something, and the control tower repeats it. The control tower says something, and the pilot repeats it. Of course, the consequences of miscommunication in that particular set of circumstances are obviously catastrophic. And so, it is very, very important to be exactly on the same page in terms of elevation, course heading, and direction from the control tower to the pilot; and the pilot must clearly communicate to the control tower what he or she is seeing and what it is they are about to do. This is vital.
I am not suggesting that you behave like a pilot, but think about it in those terms. When you confirm that you have heard the person speaking to you, you will experience a connection. Communication is really all about connecting with people. The people who connect are those who have a true understanding.
3. Clarify your understanding.
Beware of the myth that written communication avoids the possibility of misunderstanding.
“There are many variables. I’m just going to write it all down in plain black and white right there on a piece of paper or on your screen. That way, there will be no possible misinterpretation whatsoever because I’m going to write it down, and all you have to do is read it.”
I’ve heard this time and time again from people who believe that what they have written and the meaning behind what they’ve written is exactly what the reader is going to interpret and understand, when it is not. The words are there. The person can read. They will read the literal words. But they will not extract the same meaning. It’s almost a given that they will extract either a subtly different meaning, or in some cases, a profoundly different meaning.
In live workshops, I will often use an example sentence such as: “I never said that you stole my bicycle.”
How clear is that? Pretty clear statement, right? It’s pretty straightforward and simple. You would think that a hundred people would interpret that sentence in pretty much the same way: “I never said that you stole my bicycle.”
But watch what happens when you change the emphasis from one word to the next. What if what the person wrote was really, “I never said that you stole my bicycle.” What is the implication of the emphasis on “I”? Of course, it implies that someone else said you stole my bicycle.
“I never said that you stole my bicycle.”
Now I’m accentuating the word “said.” What is the implication of that emphasis? It’s that I think you stole my bicycle, but I never said it out loud.
The point is, the same words were used in all of those examples. But the meaning of those words is fundamentally different.
I’ve had people just about fall out of their chair reading their own emails after this exercise because they see so many ways that you can misinterpret even a rather short sentence.
There’s a magnet on my in-law’s refrigerator that says, “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”
One comma makes a fundamental difference in the meaning of the sentence. Of course, it’s a joke, but it emphasizes the different ways of interpretation. This is particularly important in our multi-cultural society in the business that we do. People have different source languages. They may be speaking your language as a second or third language, and the nuances and subtlety associated with your choice of words is lost with them. It doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent. Of course, they’re intelligent. It just means they didn’t understand what you intended.
Do you want to be effective in your career? Do you want to be effective in your personal life? Work on your communication skills in these three areas. Be a communicator who actually connects.
And whatever you do, don’t eat Grandma!