We open our mouths and we talk. Pretty much non-stop.
Pause a second and listen to what’s around you. Inevitably there is the hum of the office air conditioner, but there is also the constant low-key babble of human existence. We do it all day and if you subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory you will know that anything we do with so much frequency we should be masters at already. But of course we aren’t! We talk and talk and talk but we say less and with less clarity.
We listen, but we do so with half an ear. We don’t listen with our full attention, we do so only long enough to hear what we think we need, before either tuning out, or going back to our endless to-do lists. Therein lies the issue. It’s what we think we need to hear, not what they are actually saying.
For example: Your offspring is falling over his or her words telling you about their sports day and what races they are doing. You are thinking, sports day means I must make sure he/she has sun-cream, extra juice, throw-away lunchboxes, do I need to factor it into my diary and if so I wonder what times their races will be? What your little darling is actually saying is listen to my breathing, am I stuttering because I am nervous or excited? Am I actually telling you I want you to come and watch me even as I am saying I don’t? Or am I even saying that I’m nervous because I have so much on, or even that I can’t believe they actually picked me for my team and I am so proud.
Communication, as we know, is about sending and receiving information. Until the person you are communicating with confirms understanding; you haven’t actually done your job. But it’s a world full to overflowing with noise, so how do you get your point across, get it heard in the endless hubbub?
The Art of Conversing
No man, as they say, is an island, and this means that in order to get anything done, you have to work with and through people. Naturally when you introduce people to the mix, with their own individual communication styles and frames of reference, there can be misunderstandings. We see it when we deal with cross-continental project teams all the time.
Meaning is so much more than what we hear on the surface, the words. It’s the context, the nuance and even the body language. Take for example the waspish sales person who wishes you a nice day but looks at you as though you crawled out from under their shoe. If you don’t take the entire exchange into account you really would think that they wished you a good day as opposed to wanting to strip you naked and send you running into the street yowling.
Learning to converse with those around you is as much about being able to send out information in such a way that those receiving it can understand it, and take the necessary action. Simple isn’t it?
Essential Communication skills
Alright so this is going to sound counter-intuitive. Ready? The best communication skill you can have, is to listen. Be quiet. Focus on the person giving you information and really listen. Watch their body. You will be amazed at what you will intuitively pick up when you really focus on a person as they talk. Without any special training, we are conditioned from birth to read the bodies signals and as we grow older it frequently manifests in that nagging feeling we get when chatting to someone. Ever wondered why you don’t trust someone who has never given you a reason not to? It could be because their communication is shifty. Darting eyes, licking their lips that kind of thing.
Take a read of your emotional response to the communication, as well as your emotional temperature at the time of the communication. Are you in an emotional space where you can actually understand and hear the communication, or have you just come off the back of an argument? If so - you are probably needing to cool down, before you can receive and unemotionally process, anything. When we are under pressure or stress we interpret things differently, as we do when we are angry or feeling ‘down’. You’ve seen examples of this in your own life when you’re feeling a little sad and someone makes a passing comment that wouldn’t normally affect you at all, but in this case sent you spiraling into a pit of devastation. Emotion matters, and it’s only by being self-aware that you understand exactly how much!
An essential part of communication is about being trustworthy, and maintaining a reputation for trustworthiness. Just as Macbeth found to his detriment you can’t equivocate! You have to be brave enough to have the scary discussions.
You know the ones we mean. Where you can’t meet a client’s delivery date, or you are about to disappoint a colleague, you need to be brave enough to be truthful, take responsibility and not use language that muddies the issue.
Steel yourself to deal with the fact that bad news, or possibly negative discussions will never be taken well, and you may end up disappointing the receiver of the information, but that skirting the information or using phrases like “well maybe we can try this” doesn’t really help.
Be sure of your information, deliver it clearly and – if possible- accompany it with solutions or other options. Bad news is always taken much better when there is a plan afoot to remedy an uncomfortable situation.
Now let’s be very clear. We do not mean bullying. I recently sat in a meeting with a stakeholder on a project who mistakenly thought that by getting louder and more aggressive, as well as using stronger language she would be paid attention to. In a room of 8 people, all that happened was that she drowned out everyone else, and the meeting was a complete waste of time as everyone broke away to have side discussions once the meeting was over. Being loud isn’t being assertive. Swearing or shouting isn’t being assertive. Being aggressive isn’t being assertive either. None of these show even a modicum of respect for the other parties so why should they, in turn, show any respect for your opinions, if this is your style.
Assertive communicators are able to clearly articulate their thinking. They use clear language (don’t um and ahhh), avoid using guilt as a tactic, and clearly define their boundaries. If, for example you need to decline a certain path of action. You can say no, but back it up with sound reasoning and then don’t cloud the issue by backtracking and (yet again) equivocating. You don’t have to be a bully to stand your ground, but you do need to be clear and immovable. Like Table Mountain on a cloudless day!
To understand communication and what it means to be an effective communicator, you need to know a few terms;
- A receiver is a person who will ‘receive’ a message in some form from another person
- A transmitter is the one to ‘sends’ (or communicates) that message, either verbally or non-verbally.
- A message is the information being communicated
- Noise is anything that interferes with the understanding or distortion of message as it’s being sent from the transmitter to the receiver.
- Understanding is what the message means to the sender
- Feedback is an important part of communication which is a verbal or non-verbal response between the sender and the receiver.