Graham Jones (Surrey, BC, IT Professional)
Recently I was having a “serious” conversation with my son and it was progressing as usual, ie. not going much of anywhere. As the frustration level was rising I said to him, “you need to work on your Active Listening skills”. This was met with the familiar and “helpful” response of, “huh!”. I explained “Active Listening” is the process of:
- “Hearing the words”
- Analyze for meaning
- Paraphrase to indicate what you think you heard, ie. “feedback”
I hesitate to say that my attempts at achieving improved communication with my son were successful. I can only hope in time he will see the mutual benefit. It did get me thinking about the challenges of communication and the factors which influence our degree of success. How often do we effectively and efficiently communicate verbally? If we take the steps above in turn we can consider those factors which affect success and failure.
"Hearing The Words"
This seems pretty straightforward assuming that we have no physical disability which must be accommodated for those who unfortunately have such difficulties. Our autonomic systems may sense the air vibrations which represent the sounds that are made but “hearing the words” has a wider implication. The “physical and emotional” environment and “language and expression” have a substantial effect on whether those sounds pass “undistorted” or “unfiltered” to our processing system. The physical environment can be too hot, too cold, too noisy, etc.. The “emotional” environment can be affected by whether it is work or family, or a specific individual or group. Factors include age, religion, politics, ethnic origin, history, personality, etc.. “Language and expression” has an influence by virtue of education, vocabulary, accent and dialect.
Having consideration for the above it isn’t too difficult to see what goes as “input” to our processing system may already be off the mark compared with what was intended, assuming that it all gets there. If the conversation has become very emotionally charged then we tend to go into “auto response mode”, ie. we are so busy thinking how to countermand what is being said that the whole “message” never gets processed. At this point further communication is useless without a change in position by one or both parties. Conversation has degenerated into what we call an “argument”. On other occasions we go into “passive listening” mode where we basically “close our ears” to the “noise” that is coming from the other person. In case you are thinking that these are never me then I would like to suggest that we are all guilty to some degree at times.
I am quite sure that we are familiar with the exercise of putting 10 people in a row, whispering something fairly simple to the first person and then asking the last what they heard. Sometimes it can even be quite amusing. It is even more interesting to take the same 10 people and keep repeating the exercise with the same phrase to see if or how long it takes for communication to improve. The same exercise could also be repeated with a completely new set of 10 people.
Analyze For Meaning & Give Feedback
This is influenced by such factors as topic, complexity, intellect, education, upbringing, experience, and cultural background. By now we could be way off base which makes “feedback” absolutely essential regardless of the relationship between the parties. Unfortunately it is often missing, leading to frustration and moving further apart. Why is it often missing? We may be afraid to admit that we didn’t understand in case we look “silly or ignorant or stupid or….”. Without feedback, followed by clarification or a reformulation of the style of input then the conversation will likely end with both parties going away saying to themselves, “what was that all about…?”. It is equally likely that each party will consider the other to be largely responsible for the outcome. If there is one thing that I have learned over the years is that if a conversation “doesn’t work out” is to start from the position that it could be at least 50% my fault. If you start from there then you are much more likely to recognize your part in the “failure to communicate”. It doesn’t mean that you will decide that there is equal responsibility but if you don’t have the right mindset you will never be objective and learn from the experience. “It is always the other person’s fault” will never move you forward!
It's a Two Way Street
When we say that someone is “open minded” we are really saying that they are capable of “active listening” and willing to try and learn from every “exchange” whether it be one-on-one or within a group setting. So far I have approached this from a “listening” standpoint. Clearly there is another side to the equation and that is practicing the ability to deliver in a clear and unambiguous manner. Always putting the onus on the other person to make the best of what you are saying is still unlikely to succeed. If you are dealing with someone who appears reticent to use “feedback” to get “clarification” then there is no reason that you shouldn’t ask politely if they have understood or ask how you might re-phrase or re-formulate, eg. use illustrations, examples, different language, to move forward. To some extend this is a learned skill. You don’t want to appear condescending or overbearing. Implying that the other person is an “idiot” definitely won’t work.
I am quite sure that we can all identify someone within our acquaintance who exemplifies the wrong way to go about “communication”. Unfortunately if this happens to be our boss it can definitely be a challenge. I have been there myself but despite his impatient manner I would never leave without making sure that I knew what he wanted. Think of it this way, “do you really want to solve the wrong problem with someone like that to deal with?”. I guarantee that it will always be your fault!! Take the “little lumps” during the conversation rather than the “big lumps” later. Besides you can always hope that you might eventually teach them some better communication habits, although I definitely wouldn’t count on it.
We should never stop working on our “active listening or delivery” skills however good we might think that we are. Overcoming “who we are and our origins” from a communication standpoint is no simple task and it is highly unlikely that we will ever be close to “perfect”. Besides it wouldn’t do for us all to be too much alike. It would make life awfully boring and the exchange of views a chore rather than, with an “open minded” approach, a potentially stimulating and satisfying exercise. Being able to understand, accept and respect somebody else’s opinion without necessarily agreeing with it is an essential component of maturity.