umans are naturally social and communicative creatures and we spend around 75% of our waking hours in some form of communication with another. Unfortunately we naturally assume that since we ARE communicating we CAN communicate (effectively). Sadly this is not the case and most of us are communicating in a way which lacks empathy, leaves significant room for misunderstandings and fails to get the best out of those around us.
There are a few core skills which when mastered will radically open doors to career advancement and personal growth. Effective communications is one of them; it is pivotal to success in all areas of life.
What’s Going Wrong?
The paradigm of “we don’t know what we don’t know” means the majority of the world’s population believe that they are effectively giving and receiving information in their communications – since they get their meaning across most of the time and are able to create interactive dialogue with others. In reality this communication is less than effective and research suggests that 25% to 50% of what we communicate is actually misunderstood.
From a business perspective this low quality communication amounts to costly mistakes, missed opportunities, lack of rapport and tension in the workplace. We wrongly assume that as we are speaking the same language we have the same meaning. However, meaning is more than words, it is feelings, expectations, assumptions, cultural and perceptual biases and this is the crucial part that is often missing in our interpretations of each other’s communications.
Busy lives and tight schedules mean we don’t spend the time to really understand a communication from the perspective of the person delivering it and looking for THEIR intended meaning. Finding meaning is tricky as it depends on the personal experiences of the person who is subjectively presenting the information. An example is the use of comparative words: there is a huge difference in what is meant by ‘expensive’ and ‘cheap’ depending on your cultural background and financial status. To one person £5,000 for a car is cheap, to another it is expensive.
The exchange of information to find meaning, gather data, gain understanding and find solutions to problems relies on correctly interpreting the meaning behind what is being said. This is where the detective work begins! To find meaning, specifically when receiving vocal communications for example in conversation, you need to look for clues in addition to the words that are being said.
Interpreting meaning requires an assessment of emotions in addition to the content. It requires an understanding of body language and non-verbal cues called paralinguistics (how something is said). It requires a keen attention to detail and focus on exactly what is being delivered and how. It requires a level of concentration and focus many of us simply do not provide when we are listening.
Active and Reflective Listening
When we simply hear the words being communicated only a very small portion of our mental capacity is steered towards the speaker. “In one ear and out the other” is a fitting description of the passive and often selective hearing that we apply during everyday life. This is like reading a book where over half the words have been tippexed-out! We are missing the best bits, the emotions, the alternative perspectives and connection that can be created when we really ‘get’ somebody and what they are trying to say.
To get back the missing information we need to focus much more on the speaker: asking questions to find more information and encourage them to open up; reflecting what emotions we perceive and checking to see if we are right. Paying attention to one subject and opening the mind to take in as much information as possible isn’t as easy as it sounds, it takes practice and patience but the payoffs are immense.
A Whole New World!
Despite our emotional nature we rarely get taught how to cope with, understand, or interpret our own emotions or each other’s! Fortunately this is changing and individuals and business are rapidly recognising the value of increasing our emotional intelligence and understanding of each other. This breaks down barriers, removes cultural misconceptions and generally makes it much easier for us to work with each other. We need more than words, we need to know where the other person is ‘coming from’ mentally, experientially and emotionally.
Once we discover the secret of using active and reflective listening, combined with questioning skills, we are privy to a whole new set of data about the people we interact with which was previously hidden. Suddenly we gain new understanding and insight, tension is reduced and relationships built, problems are solved. Things make much more sense!
So, if you want to get a sneak peek at what’s really going on (like turning on the emotional and perceptual subtitles) you need to improve your communication skills. Specifically you need to get more data on those around you and you achieve this with active and reflective listening and questioning. There isn’t really a secret to be heard, the information is all there for the taking, but you have to know how to get it and where to find it, that’s the trick.