The problem with communication, is the illusion that it has been accomplished
~George Bernard Shaw
“Communication skill” is now an important buzzword. Your resume is incomplete without it. Improving it is the most common feedback employees receive during appraisals. Almost all professional colleges have courses for it. The problem is that, they are treated as most of the things in this world, in terms of measurable output. You may have the capability to deliver flawless presentations; you may improve your language skills to become a better writer; you may work on your non-verbal skills to become a better speaker; you may even get top grades in “communication skill” courses. But, none of that implies that you are an effective communicator. All these skills are part of being able to communicate well, but, the essence of communication is understanding.
Most of the books, courses and seminars focus on the output aspect – public speaking, creative or technical writing, slide design and lay-outing etc. A few even deal with the input aspect – listening. I have been noticing an increasing awareness about listening skills. But, the human element of understanding and empathy in communication is hardly explored. Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ covers it quite well.
I believe that effective communication is a cyclic process. There are four basic steps involved in it. The list is not in order of priority.
- Perceive –
You must have active focus on the person/people you are communicating with. Take input from all of your senses. Listen to the spoken word, observe the emotions and reactions, use your sense of smell/taste/touch to discern discomfort in the environment (for e.g., high level of humidity in the room) and, try to exercise your sixth sense (if you believe in such a thing) to get a feel for the mood and surroundings. This act can also be passive, like finding out the interests and expectation of your audience before you address them, researching the person or company you are going to have a meeting with. Store these inputs, just like you download files into your hard disk storage. No processing, just download.
- Empathize –
Set aside your ego, opinion and assumptions. Try to see the situation from the other’s point of view. Acknowledge that there can be opinions other than your own. Even if you disagree with them, they are still valid opinions. Now, use the stored inputs from Step 1 to process the information. Try to understand the reason behind the response. This will require an open mind, selfless nature and strength of character on your part. It is very easy to see the world with your coloured glasses. The hard part is taking it off and seeing that others have their own coloured glasses.
- Speak to be understood –
Tell the the other person that, you see the world in the colour they do. Present your understanding of their point of view. A hollow “Yes, I see” will not cut it; nor will simple repetition of their words. Explain each step that helped you to understand their point of view. You did the hard work in Step 2, so show it to them. Go back to Step 1 and repeat till you understand and align yourself to their point of view. Now, you say what you have to. Speak, but, with their point of view as reference.
- Cooperate –
After all that hard work, when the person in the communication process with you sees, that you have made an effort to understand them, they will be more open to your point of view. They might or might not agree with it, but they will accept it as valid, just as you did with them. This is the objective of effective communication. To have both sides open up to the idea that there are no right or wrong opinions, just different points of view. Now, you can work together for mutual benefit.
Back in school, I used to consider myself an excellent communicator. At an important debate competition, I decided to step it up a notch by asking a question, using some of the most impressive words from my vocabulary. It was the first time I had ever framed a question by writing it down. I didn’t win, and was indignant. I thought I deserved that prize. Later, when I asked the judge he said that, my question was good, but he had seen me write it down. I was inflamed. Everyone else wrote down their question, all the time! The first time I did so, I lost a sure shot prize! It antagonized me for a very long time. Now, I realize that, I lost because I didn’t communicate effectively. I focused on framing the question so much that, I didn’t listen to or try to understand the rest of the debate. The emphasis on using impressive words made the question devoid of meaning – my focus was not on being understood. If I had applied these four steps, I might have won. More importantly, the purpose of the debate would have been accomplished.
The process can be applied, for instance, when you want to take a day off. Try to approach your boss when he is in a relatively good mood. Listen to his reasons for refusal and try to understand why he is reacting in this way. Don’t tell your boss about the significance of your friends’s marriage Tell him about the extra effort you have put in to complete the current assignment and the overtime you will do after you come back. Then, he may open to hear more about your reason. Most of the times, you will get the approval for the leave.
The point is, you can put these four steps into practice every time you have an interaction. It doesn’t matter whether it is just bar talk with a stranger or a conflict at home. If your intention is grounded in the principle of authenticity, this method of communication will work. You will find solutions you didn’t believe existed. Your connection with your friends and loved ones will improve. The quality of your interaction with other people has a direct effect on happiness. Approach human interactions with the mindset of effective communication. More fulfilling the social aspect of your being is, happier you will be. To conclude, as Tony Robbins said, “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”