The problem with ineffective communication
I sat one day in a café and overheard a pair of people chatting at a table nearby. One person tried to tell about the difficulties and problems she had with her husband, while her interlocutor listened carefully and attempted to give advice and support.
The longer the conversation went, the more curious I was becoming. Woman who had problems with her husband clearly overwhelmed with emotions of the whole situation, seemed incapable of finding any words to express her feelings, mumbling and stuttering half sentences like, “I just …he’s so …I can’t explain it honestly. It’s like …” but before she could finish, her friend cut in mid-sentence and said, “oh yes I know exactly what you’re feeling. I had exactly the same situation. It sounds like he’s being manipulative, that’s what it sounds like. I fully get you. He’s being manipulative, right?”
Then the reply from the first woman gave it away: that’s not at all what she wanted to say. With this, she attempted again: “No …not really, it’s pretty difficult to explain actually. I just …oh never mind. He’s just so stressed at the moment that…”
But again before she had a chance to finish her thought, the second woman interrupted with a ready interpretation, saying confidently, “yes that’s always the way it is with woman in abusive relationships, trust me I know, you’re feeling like you can’t ask for help right now, but that’s just because he’s manipulated you…”
And that’s how the cycle went. The second woman was so sure she had heard her friend, and was so confident that she had correctly understood the situation, that she failed to notice the growing irritation of her friend with the situation. I listened closely, and after a few minutes, the first woman lost her temper and said loudly, “You’re talking to me like I’m some kind of battered wife – you aren’t listening!”
The second woman was shocked. Until that turning moment, she actually perceived herself as rightly giving support and advice to an unlucky friend who was in an abusive relationship.
Communication is a funny thing. It’s a lot like driving – nobody ever thinks they’re bad at it!
However, part of the issue of being poor at communication is that you may not even be aware of it. When most people hear “communication”, they think of the best way that they can get their message across, and not the best way to receive the other person’s message.
The secret – improve your listening skills!
Think about yourself – how many times have you waited for someone to finish before you chipped in? You might not be as skilful a communicator as you think! The first job of competent communication with others is to listen.
Not simply hearing what you want to hear and have a prepared reply. Effective communication is not simply nodding and agreeing. It’s not assuming what you have been told. The secret is in listening.
The interruptive person I encountered in that café made many wrong assumptions about what her friend was telling her. She heard what she wanted to hear, not what she was actually told. The irony is that she most likely considered herself as a great communicator!
I had a client once who said he wanted to improve his listening skills – because he realised he couldn’t listen to anyone at all. So he set himself objectives to improve, and in the following session he not only had he become a better listener, but people were actually listening to him more too. When they were being listened to, they responded better and he was starting to become more able to influence the people around him.
Listening wouldn’t be such a valuable skill if it was easy, however, and that’s why even the empathetic among us need to keep practicing. Here are a few listening techniques for you to practice:
- Listen actively. Listening doesn’t just mean you don’t say anything for a while and give the other person a turn! It means trying to understand the other person’s message.
- Take your time to make sure you’ve actually received the right message. Ask questions or paraphrase what they’ve said to check that you really understand.
- Pause frequently after questions to let people express themselves fully. Don’t rush. Show that you respect them and their opinion by not interrupting them mid-sentence.
- Maintain dignity and composure, especially where strong emotions threaten to overwhelm the conversation. Try to remember the purpose of the conversation and don’t get distracted.
- Deliver your message as clearly and simply as possible.
- Adjust your message according to the person who’s receiving it. If your interlocutor doesn’t understand the message, put it into different words. Speak to your audience by considering what would make the most sense from their point of view.
- Don’t speak unless you have something to say. Think before you say anything and make sure you know why you are saying this rather than just wanting to fill up empty space.
- Look for commonalities between you. Be friendly and collaborative, and remember to express appreciation for your conversation’s partner point of view, even if it’s different to yours.
- Know when to disengage. Sometimes, when no further progress is possible, digging deeper into a topic might make it worse. Instead, remove yourself from conversations that have become unproductive and try again later.
Becoming a better communicator is quite simple, but requires consistent work. The women in the café were talking, but they weren’t communicating. The second woman might have gotten quite a different reaction if she listened properly.
Think for a moment about the last conversation you had. Do you think you did everything you could to truly hear what the other person was saying?
What do you think? Let me know in the comments!