We want to be effective communicators. In fact, as a general matter, we believe what we say is clear – otherwise we would have said it differently. The startling truth is that the same words said to different people could be heard as different messages.
So how can you tell whether people are hearing what you intend them to hear? Everyone’s perception of a conversation goes though filters: generation, personality Type – preferences for extraversion v. introversion and perception and judging of information – and other filters. First, notice how your colleagues might differ from you and take that into account when you talk with them. For example, are they more extraverted and tend to think aloud or are they more introverted and need more time to reflect? These kinds of observations will help you tailor your message so that the listener understands it as you intended.
Yet, there is still a chance that what you say might not be understood, especially if you and your colleague disagree about an issue that is important to both of you. Your colleague may have already drawn conclusions, made assumptions, or perhaps is just too preoccupied with a “position” on the matter, or even personal troubles, to listen in that moment. Sometimes, you might realize that you just selected the wrong time for the conversation because your colleague is distracted. Or if your colleague strongly disagrees with your point of view, she might be coming up with her response or rebuttal instead of listening to you. In other words, your colleague isn’t fully present to what you are saying.
Our second bit of advice, therefore, is to help your colleague to be present by using the Win-Win Conversation’s awareness of others. Focus first on your colleague’s feelings and needs so that you truly get where she is coming from. You may even help your colleague clarify her feelings and needs by asking focused question and letting your colleague talk it out while you listen for what is important to her. You increase your chances of being truly heard when you understand your colleague’s feelings and needs before delving back into the discussion.
Third, remember to listen closely so that you recognize when (and if) your colleague climbs the ladder of inference (which is drawing conclusions based on the selection of observations and the addition of meaning, and then taking action based on those conclusions, which then reinforces a particular (negative) view about a person or situation). If you hear the climb, you can ask questions that challenge the underlying assumptions or suggest alternative interpretations. Armed with the understanding of your colleague’s needs and goals, take a step back and restate, clarify, or rephrase your message if it still seems relevant.
And lastly, be a good listener yourself. You need to be present and engaged yourself to understand the message as intended because you may have to guess the other person’s feelings and needs. If appropriate, you can check by asking “I heard… you feel… because you need…” and offer clarification or help. The bottom line is that awareness of others – observing not just what they’re saying but what they’re communicating about their feelings and needs through body language, tones, and facial expressions – is necessary to ensure your message is heard and understood as intended.
While it can be frustrating when your words are misunderstood, stay calm and avoid blame or judgment so that you retain the objectivity necessary to have a productive conversation about needs and goals. In other words, focus on what’s important and ignore the noise. Communication is simple, but not easy!