The human brain is wired to take in new information and organize it in a way that makes sense. There is a constant flow of observation, interpretation, comparison, and application. What is this new information? What does it mean? How is it like/unlike the information I already have stored up here? What do I do with this information?
When we communicate with other people, all of these thought processes are present; often occurring at a hastened pace. Add into the mix our emotional responses (This information makes me feel….), and it becomes easy to see why effective communication can be so challenging.
It is possible that a breakdown in communication can happen at any step of this process:
- You may not clearly hear the person or be familiar with the vocabulary they are using.
- You may misunderstand the meaning of their words or misinterpret the intention of the conversation.
- If the information is contrary to information you have or believe, conflict may arise.
- As you are trying to decide how to use new information, you may not be fully present and listening to the rest of what the other person is saying.
- And without even thinking about it, you may experience an emotional reaction to the new information that clouds your ability to think clearly.
What if we could radically change how we communicate by adding a few new strategies to our bag of tricks? Maybe one of these ideas would make a difference for you:
Your Story –
Several thought leaders and social science researchers, including Brené Brown from the University of Houston, have shared ways to combat the detrimental effects our story has on our ability to communicate and connect with others.
Your story is simply what you believe to be true based on the information you have. It is the result of your observations and interpretations of information. Good news, right? Nope! The fact is, your story could be wrong. Your observations might be incomplete and your interpretations may be flawed.
It’s not your fault that you have a story… we all have stories. The brain is designed to create meaning. But knowing this to be true, we can act to address our stories in an effort to become better communicators.
The simplest way to do this is to acknowledge that you have a story; first to yourself, and then if you are really courageous, to others. Imagine that a coworker walks past you in the hallway without smiling or saying hello. Your brain may create the story that “My coworker doesn’t like me… is upset with me… is mean, etc.”
Step one in this situation is to acknowledge that you have just created a story. You made it up – right there – on the spot. It might be true, but it also could be false. By evaluating your stories, you can begin to strip away the emotions tied to the stories, such as:
- What did I do wrong? (worry, guilt)
- I didn’t do anything wrong! (defensiveness)
- Wow, what a meanie! (offended)
Once the story is acknowledged and layers of emotions have been removed, you might choose to approach your coworker and say something like, “Hey, I noticed you are not your normal cheery self today. Is everything OK?” Or you might choose to let it go.
If the same situation occurs for several days, you could approach your coworker and say, “We have not had a chance to talk all week. I am creating a story that something is wrong between us. Is there anything we need to address?”
Early care and education providers are trained to ask open-ended questions to children to promote exploration and deeper levels of thinking. These same questions can build supportive relationships with the parents can coworkers as well.
How often do you use these questions:
- Tell me more about…
- What is/is not working…?
- How can I help?
- Have you considered…?
- How did you come to that conclusion/decision?
- What would make a difference…?
- What else could we try?
Deep Listening –
Everyone knows about the importance of listening during conversations. It is essential to effective communication. Unfortunately, it is also a very difficult practice. And it is just that – a practice. It’s something you have to do repeatedly, with intention, in order to improve.
During your next conversation, pay attention to your listening. Are you truly present for the other person, or are you thinking about how you will respond, what advice you will give, or even a book you can recommend. Chances are, your mind will be pulled away from the other person’s words for any number of reasons.
When this happens, gently bring your attention back to the speaker. If you realize that you have missed important information, you might decide to acknowledge it. Say something like, “I am sorry, could you please say that last part again? What you are talking about reminded me of an article I want to share with you and I got distracted thinking about where I could find it. I was not fully listening to the last thing you said,” or “Can I stop you for a second? I am sorry. I started planning what I was going to say next, and I stopped listening. Would you mind repeating your last point?
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “This sounds awkward. People don’t talk like this!”
Exactly the point!
How might your communication change if you did?
Take CCEI’s October Free Trial Course PROF103 Strategies for Success in Challenging Conversations today. Offered 10/1-10/31/17. Click here for more information.