Part of our evolutionary process is learning how to communicate more effectively and efficiently. Few of us have had much training in the matter, and most of us have experienced the consequences of communication breakdowns. We all know what doesn’t work, and how badly it feels to be unheard and misunderstood.
I learned how to speak from a man who didn’t know how to listen. I once worked for a CEO who had no space or time for my emotions or conversational process—so I wrote an article called “Who’s Listening?” for a newsletter I created every month. Since I had been so thrown off guard by his apparent disinterest in the “whole” me, I was led to question what it was about my own communication style that made it hard for us to talk.
These are the questions I asked myself and ultimately included in the article. I hope they help.
1. Are you being negative? Nobody enjoys being in the presence of negative energy. Try listening to yourself as you speak. Pay attention to your tone of voice. If you are whining, stop it. If you are being cynical or complaining, stop it. For one week, try turning your complaints into requests and see if you notice a difference in how your ideas are received.
2. Do you share opinions, but not your inner self? When’s the last time you were in the presence of a powerful speaker? What do you remember about what the speaker said? Chances are, whoever was talking was sharing some personal story, illustrating a point with an anecdote. Listeners get enrolled in a conversation when the speaker actually shares something meaningful about his or her life. Rich communication never occurs by accident. It takes intention and attention. Think of the most engaging conversationalist you know. Next time you hear that person, listen for how much of themselves they really share. Try sharing something personal next time you’re in a conversation with someone who’s important to your life. Trust them enough to admit a fear of yours, to tell a story from your childhood, or to share a vision you have for the future. We are all waiting to have these conversations, but no one wants to go first. Try going first.
3. Are you planning what you want to say while others speak, instead of listening? This one always backfires. It’s a dead giveaway. People know when you’re doing it because your responses to their speaking are usually inappropriate, and communication breaks down rapidly. No one listens back to someone who hasn’t listened to them. Instead of spouting off your opinions immediately after a person has spoken, ask them something about what they just said. Pay attention to their speaking and they will pay more attention to yours.
4. Do you live up to your word? Did you ever know someone who was always going to do this and always promising to do that and never came through? Did you stop listening to that person after awhile? The world is full of dreamers and planners, but it’s people’s actions, not their dreams, that inspire us. Open up and share something you’ve accomplished that you’re proud of. If you have something you want to accomplish, ask for support. People will not take us seriously if they see we do not take our own words and commitments seriously.
5. Have you created an environment for listening? It is not easy to listen to someone in a room where TV’s and radios are in competition with humans. If real communication is important to you, try turning off the tube and finding a commercial-free FM station that plays music conducive to conversation. Classical music stimulates the alpha waves in our brains, and keep our creative juices flowing.
6. Do you speak as a victim of circumstances or as a creator of possibilities? People who speak as if the world were out to get them have a difficult time finding listeners. No one wants to get pulled into the emotional quicksand that a “victim” seems to be buried in. Consider how you respond as a listener to other people’s tales of woe? Do you tire quickly in that context? Do you get depressed and feel burdened? Energy is contagious. If you speak as the one who’s designing your life, rather than as a victim of other peoples’ actions, you will empower yourself and others.
7. Does your listener know the value of your relationship with her or him? Establishing a background of trust and relatedness is critical to communication. The better sense a person has of you and of your commitment to the relationship, the more open will they be to your speaking. If what needs to be communicated is difficult or risky, it often helps to begin by stating what’s at stake for you and how important honesty is to the relationship.
8. Do you inquire about what may be important to your listener or do you mostly talk about yourself? One way to ensure that your listener is with you is to include her or his interests in your conversation. The next time you have coffee with your neighbor or sit next to your co-worker in the cafeteria, initiate a conversation about something you know that person is interested in. If she’s a ski enthusiast, ask her about her favorite places to ski. If he’s into computer games, strike up a conversation about an article you read on the subject. People listen up and open up when you show a genuine regard for something they’re interested in.
9. If people listened to you like you listen to others, would you be satisfied? Most of us have a person in our life who plays the role of listener when we really need to talk about something. If you have such a person, consider what particular skills this person has at listening. Why did you pick her or him as your sounding board? What is it that makes you trust them? What body language do they exhibit when you speak that lets you know they’re with you? Is it helpful to have people give you advice when you share something difficult, or would you prefer they just listen and let you sort things out in their presence? Can you be present to someone’s pain without trying to solve all their problems? Observe how you listen the next time someone shares something difficult and see if you can refrain from offering advice and platitudes.
10. Are you complaining to the wrong people? It doesn’t help anyone to complain to people who have no power to change things. If something is wrong, find out who’s in charge and take your concern to the right person.
JAN PHILLIPS is a principal with 9th Element Group. A master communicator, thought leader, keynote speaker and award-winning author, Jan is currently writing The Art of Original Thinking: The Making of a Thought Leader (9th Element Press). Jan describes the steps to becoming a Thought Leader and discusses the impact of Thought Leaders in their workplaces, communities and organizations. More info at: http://www.9thelementgroup.com/original_think.php?id=67