Tools for Communication

Communication in the workplace is always a constant challenge. The pressures to perform amid the chaos of constant change often create an environment that makes a “meeting of the minds” seem like an oxymoron.

Fortunately, research on human emotions and the intricacies of the human brain, has helped to clarify the key communication tools. Paying attention to the emotional subtext will help build a deeper person-to-person form of communication. If you learn to listen from your mission (of communication), you will leap ahead in problem solving. Finally, make sure you know “whose ‘backside’ ‘should/would’ be on the line” when choices, chances or changes are made to ensure that communication is effective and practiced as a two way process and not an assertion of power.

Emotional Subtext

You know how you can cooo your way to your dog in a really sweet, loving voice, “Oh you stupid mutt I am going to get you for chewing up the sofa again,” and he hears, “good boy, sweet boy, good boy”?

I hate to admit this publicly, but I am a bit like that dog in recurring themes in some of my relationships both past and present. It goes like this:

“Sweetheart, are you mad?” (I ask innocently)

“No.” (I hear some tension in her voice) “I am not mad.” (That sounds like anger to me!)

Hmmmm,” I ponder to myself, “she surely does sound mad ….” “Uh, are you not even a little mad?”

I said I am not mad, okay?”

“Okay, okay … I just … well, I feel like you are mad.” In hindsight, I see this is a tactical error, but I somehow go for it every time.

Before long, she’ll say, “Well, now I am mad, you made me mad!”

In our case, I am sure some of the miscommunication comes from each of us. Most of the time when I ask if she is mad, she actually is mad ~ but like many people who do not like conflict, she does not want to seem mad. I make it worse by “picking” at the irritation. In the office, people often follow the same pattern, but the reactions are cloaked in politeness. I say to my colleague, “So are you okay with this proposal?” He isn’t, but doesn’t want to argue about it, and says, “Sure, it is okay.” But I now hear, “Don’t be an idiot, I hate it!” and so I am left with mixed messages and am unsure of what he really thinks and how he really feels about the proposal and about me.

It is easier to see emotional subtext by watching others that are watching ourselves. For instance, turn on the TV to the Parliament channel and watch a parliamentary debate, and notice when a politician stands and says, “I would like to disagree with my esteemed colleague from across the aisle.”

We can all hear is just how “esteemed” the colleague is at that moment ~ but the speaker pretends he is being polite, and the “esteemed colleague” is often provoked to respond to the emotion contained under the words.

If you break a communication down into component pieces, research shows that only around ten percent of the message is in the words. Most of the message is in the tone and other “paralanguage/body language.” And while we frequently manipulate the words (i.e., lie), research says that even a 5-year-old child can accurately decipher the paralanguage in less than 10 seconds.

But why does it matter? After all, in most of our daily communications, we work hard to build clarity and to be tactfully truthful. Usually the issue is more confusion than deliberate obfuscation. One source of that confusion is the reality that we usually feel more than one emotion at a time.

In the “I am not mad” fight, the other person was probably not in fact, mad. She was a little “irritated,” or some part of her was mad, or she was mad in some ways or peeved about some thing. She was not “full-blown, smack-you-on-the-nose mad,” so she was not deliberately deceiving me ~ rather she was conflicted, and I perceived one piece of the puzzle. I focused on that piece because of some of my own feelings, so all in all we achieved a limited communication with little depth, shallow context, and muddy clarity.

To avoid this pitfall, perhaps the most essential tool is for me to be clear on what I am feeling ~ or more accurately, the blend of emotion I am feeling ~ and ensure that my spoken communication does not contradict that palette of feelings being transmitted. If I cannot align my thoughts, feelings, and actions, I will need to postpone the discussion until I can find clarity.

Listen From Your Mission.

There is no effective communication without effective listening.

Listening is the tool that turns words into communication. Right now, you could be reading this article and no matter how clever or useful these words may be, if you are thinking of something else entirely and not “listening,” the words on this page will not effectively enter your brain. Physiologically, there is a part of your brain ~ the hippocampus ~ which determines your focus. The hippocampus is like a great receptionist in the office of your brain. It looks at the “phone” in your brain, sees three lights on, and says, “no way that brain is going to take another call – I’ll just get rid of this call.” And like a good receptionist, the hippocampus is highly sensitive to what’s going on in the office, sees how tense people are, how busy, how concerned, and evaluates all the incoming traffic.

Also like great receptionists, you cannot fool your hippocampus. You say, “I am ready to take that call now,” but mean, “I can’t believe I’ve got to take another call now, this is totally insane, I am still …” and your hippocampus knows this. The result is a partial brain shut down ~ a “tune out”, that can also turn into depression, anxiety, withdrawal, fatigue.

It turns out that a major mechanism for getting your hippocampus to pay attention is emotion. When you actually care (or feel anything strongly, or when there is a lot of variety for your brain), the hippocampus “tunes in” and you pay more meaningful attention.

So if you actually want to listen, you have to go beyond the outward steps of “active listening” that we all learned as rote procedure for dealing with conflict. You actually have to care; to commit.

You might not care about the person, you might not care about the conversation, or the issue, but you do care that your behaviour helps you to meet your real goals, your objectives.

In other words, we each have a personal mission ~ it might not be written down, but each of us is pursuing certain goals, whatever they may be ~ and in almost any communication you can ask yourself, “how does my communication right now help or hinder my personal mission?” If you don’t have that mission written down, now is a good time: writing your personal mission is like having a compass when you are reading a map.

For many people, their personal mission includes some kind of problem solving, some kind of learning, some kind of personal accountability, some kind of making the world better. This “outer-directed” thinking makes it easier to connect with people while communicating ~ it gives you the context of caring. It’s a useful resource ~ and without it, your communication is doomed to shades of mediocrity.

Perhaps this capacity is one of the reasons that emotional intelligence is such a critical part of success. People who can bring their hearts on-line are able to listen to the message beyond the words. They are able to turn the conflict into a learning opportunity; to persevere in spite of the complexity, the messiness, the frustration of the situation.

Whose “backside” should be on the line?

Conversations frequently occur against a backdrop of shifting power. The concern over who gets to have the final word is as old as the perennial 3-year-olds’ cry: “You are not the boss of me!”

So between “Well our data shows,” and the “in every case I’ve managed,” and “I was just speaking with …” we have a tremendous range of not-so-veiled statements that mean, “I deserve to be listened to.” I have a place at this table. I am right.”

We have also learned a host of more subtle words that help to grab the power. The problem is that power that is grabbed is not usually lasting ~ and bludgeoning employees with our own status does little to generate collaboration and rarely moves us closer to actually solving a problem or meeting a challenge.

Two of the most pervasive power-grab words are “but,” and “should.” Personally, I learned them from my mentor. Do you have one? If not, get one, but a good one. Anyway, my mentor said to me; “Michael, you are such a good, smart, creative young man, but why aren’t you ‘bigger’ than what you are? You should be ‘bigger.”

Now I really do like my mentor, and I have forgiven him, and I know that is part of a mentor’s job. At the same time, it is not my job in daily conversation.

When I say “but,” I am actually saying, “everything before the word ‘but’ is not actually important to me.” “It is a good proposal, but …” “You’ve been a great help, but…” “I love the model, but…”

An alternative to “but” is “and.” “The report is good, and unfortunately I don’t think it is going to fly.” There’s no need to totally eliminate “but” ~ but sometimes it is exactly what you mean: “These are all valid reasons, but I am going to take the risk anyway.”

The “should” means that I have the right ~ even the obligation ~ to set your priorities for you.

Often this feels like the case; you might feel perfectly entitled to set your assistant’s priorities. But (ah, hear that?), don’t then turn around and ask why he/she is not a self-starter, why he/she lacks initiative, why you always have to spell out the agenda. So far more valuable than “should” is “could with feeling.” “You could do the filing first, and that would help me.”

As an experiment, pay attention every time you say “but” or “should” and ask yourself if that is the word you really mean.

Ask yourself if you are using the word to control the situation, hold onto power, and be right ~ or are you using it to create a shared understanding.

Remember, the goal of communication is not for you to deliver your idea. It is to build a bridge between two (or more) people and meet in the middle. When you’re there, you’ll get a better view, be more powerful, and feel a lot better too.

Michael Boase

Lambda Mi


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