Listen for Understanding: Effective Communication

It’s probably not well known that June is designated Effective Communication Month. Even while effective communication is one of the most important pieces of a solid relationship, two people in a relationship might not share the same idea of what that is. When most people think of communication, they think of the typical exchange between a speaker and listener alternating roles, but I’d like to expand our definition of communication far beyond the simple words we say.

Everything you do or don’t do, communicates something. It could be accurate, questionable, or something you never intended. People communicate in many ways, and non-verbal communication speaks volumes. For example, I was working with a client once who said she was really proud of herself for not nagging her husband about his drinking. However, when she described her behavior to me, I realized he’d have to be unconscious not to register the many nonverbal, disapproving messages she expressed without saying a word.

Right now, if you haven’t taken the stand that #BlackLivesMatter, then you have communicated something. Whether it’s what you want to communicate or not, you have communicated that black lives are unimportant by your silence.

Whether you’re speaking or listening, please consider your own nonverbals and try to align them with the message you want to communicate.

Effective communication still comes down to two roles—speaking and listening. Both are equally important, but I believe listening is harder because it goes beyond simply hearing the other person—there is so much more involved.

Speaking is easier than listening because, when you are communicating, there are two variables—one is known and the other isn’t. For the most part, you know what you want and what you want to communicate. You mostly have no idea what the other person wants, and if you do, it’s only your best guess. When you are speaking, you are in a known territory; it feels comfortable. Even if what you are expressing to someone is difficult for you, you are in control of this part. The other person’s response is really a wild card.

When approaching a difficult topic, it’s helpful to do some prep work before speaking. You want to get crystal clear about what you want to communicate. You are never in control of how the listener will perceive what you are saying or their response, but after preparing how to present your message, you will have considered how to increase your chances of getting a favorable response. In preparation, you consider what you want to say and how you would like the other person to receive your information.

If you are itching for an argument, present your opinions and perceptions as facts with some fire in your voice. Throw in some accusations and blame the person for your emotions. Use “you” statements instead of “I” statements. If you want to be sure your message can’t effectively be communicated to the person, those behaviors will do the trick.

If, instead, you are looking for some sympathy without solving the root of the issue, you can slide into victim mode with a whine in your voice, tears in your eyes and taking on all the blame yourself.

I don’t recommend either of these approaches—they’re actions to take when you’re playing an emotional game with someone. I am an advocate for the adult conversations that drastically reduce drama; promotes safe, honest, open dialogue; and has each person taking 100 percent responsibility for their part in the communication.

For this effective communication to occur, you may want to have some guidelines in place.

  1. When someone is talking, allow them to finish before trying to speak.
  2. When the topic is sensitive, listen with curiosity, not judgment. If the other person says something you disagree with, instead of jumping immediately to judgment, instead get curious, asking questions to better understand how it is they see the issue so differently than you.
  3. Listen with the intention to understand the other person. This does not mean you must agree. You may still disagree but can understand the life they’ve lived, the things they’ve been exposed to, the information they received and the things they value have formed this perspective.
  4. When sharing potentially volatile information, don’t speculate about the motives of the other person. Just talk about the facts without interpretation. You may let the person know how you interpreted the facts, but own your interpretation and don’t put it on the other person like it’s a fact.
  5. Before you start, have a signal. It could be as simple as saying “ouch” whenever you or the other person feel attacked or hurt. It signals that the conversation needs to stop, and the speaker needs to find out what was said that was hurtful and correct the perception or apologize.

When you speak, think about how you are communicating so you are likely to get the result you want. If you want the interaction to result in hurting the other person, causing them guilt or starting an argument, it will be best for you to work toward getting to a better place before having the conversation.

As the listener, it is your job to listen without defensiveness, doing your best to understand what the other person is expressing. It’s best to summarize your understanding to check for accuracy and to honor the speaker’s experience. Once you have accurately summarized their main points, you may respond, and you become the speaker again.

The main point is to listen for understanding and be curious about the other person’s point of view. Check out Developing Win/Win/Win Outcomes  if you also need to negotiate differences.