Slow It Down . . . for Better Communication

Being a good communicator makes you more effective in every area of your life. Good communication engenders greater love and intimacy with your spouse. It promotes deeper understanding and closeness with your kids. It creates more trust and loyalty with your colleagues.

Yet most people are not the great communicators they’d like to think they are. That’s because most of us correlate good communicating with talking. But actually, it’s more about hearing and observing.

In fact, if you could distill good communication down to one specific skill, it would be the skill of listening.

Just listening sounds easy, right? All you have to do is be quiet. But it’s really very difficult, especially for people who like to feel in control, people who think they have a lot to teach others, and people who think they’re always right.

In order to listen powerfully, you have to slow it down and notice very carefully what the other person is saying. Most of us are not very good at that.

Be a Detective

Being a good communicator doesn’t mean that you talk faster, influence more persuasively, or make sure you have the last word. It isn’t about arguing more convincingly or threatening someone else into submission. It doesn’t even depend on how articulate you are and how well you put your words together.

Communication is not a contest to see who can win. It’s not about winning or losing. You’ve all heard conversations where one person wins the battle of words but loses the war of the relationship. That’s because the other person ends up feeling beaten down and emotionally bruised. And that’s a lose-lose overall.

Good communication is more about being a good detective. Your goal is to learn as much as possible about the other person, his ideas, his feelings, and his concerns.

You act interested in the other person because you are interested. And because you’re curious and interested, you keep asking questions so that you can learn more. It makes the other person feel special, and it catapults you into a position of being someone people like to be around.

Get on the Same Page

The first step in being a good communicator is to make sure you know what the other person is saying. So many times a conversation goes off the rails because two people are not really talking about the same thing. The “listener” doesn’t take the time to listen and speeds right on with a response, thus misunderstanding from the get-go and driving the conversation downhill before it even gets started.

Here’s an example. Colleen comes home from school and states that her friend Brady got sent to the principal’s office that day. Mom doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t stop to ask a single question or wait for any additional comment from her daughter. She jumps right in with a remark that she always knew Brady was a bad kid. She’s pretty sure he does drugs, and he probably got caught in school. And that’s why she’s told Colleen not to hang out with him.

Colleen is instantly furious with her mom. She tries to explain, but by now, her mom is on a roll about drugs, poor parenting, and the lack of strict rules in school. She’s not to be interrupted by her daughter in the midst of a lecture on moral uprightness. Colleen finally stalks out of the room, and days go by before she and her mom can sort things out.

It turns out that Brady was asked to go to the principal’s office to talk about being on a committee to help stop bullying in the school.

If Colleen’s mom had slowed herself down long enough to ask a few questions and make sure she understood what Colleen was trying to tell her, they would have avoided their argument altogether. Their relationship would have been strengthened and Colleen would have learned to appreciate and trust her mom more. Instead, Colleen won’t want to share as much with her mom in the future, and their relationship will likely become more tenuous.

Learn to Summarize

Listening is equally important between spouses. Jake came home from the office one day and told his wife, Polly, that he had met with their family attorney. He told her he’d been thinking about changing the trusts in a way he thought would be more beneficial to the children, and he’d wanted to run his ideas past their attorney.

What Polly should have done was ask him to explain his thinking and his concerns. She should have continued to ask questions, gather more information, and learn the details of the attorney’s advice until she felt certain she understood all aspects of the situation. Then she could have paraphrased back what Jake had told her to make sure she understood the nuances of his ideas.

This is called “active listening.” It’s hard work, but it’s a great way to make it clear to the other person that you really listened. If you can summarize what the other person said, it lets him know you understand.

But instead, Polly rushed to end the conversation. She only said that they had worked hard to set up the trusts in the first place and, for her, the matter was settled.

If you interrupt or jump to conclusions before you know all the details, like Colleen’s mom did, you’re not listening well. If you disregard information you’re told and try to steer the conversation in your own preconceived direction, like Polly did, you’re manipulating. Neither tactic makes you a good communicator.

An important conversation goes faster when you slow it down. Even though it takes more time up front to make sure you understand all the details, you save time later on by not having to go back and rehash misunderstandings. It also saves time in repairing damaged relationships because not listening deeply comes across as disinterest and disrespect.

Reading the Room

The second step in becoming a good communicator is learning to deal with the emotions of the other person. In most conversations, feelings are present, even if they are buried under the surface. People feel strongly about what they believe and what happens to them, and these feelings are at play when you’re talking with them.

How well you can “read the room” — at your family dinner table or at your company’s board meeting — will determine the outcome of the discussion. How well you can guide the dialogue, taking into account people’s individual passions and feelings, will predict the success of your time spent together.

Most of us are good communicators when everything is going well. But put a layer of tension on top, bring up a topic that is out of your comfort zone, or begin to address a conflict, and you’re likely to fumble the play.

It takes a great deal of skill to wend your way through a conversation in which there are competing interests and passionate emotions.

You can give all the facts in the world. You can list data and research that support your point of view. But if you don’t take into consideration how your words impact the other person emotionally, you’ll be entirely ineffectual and probably lose a relationship or two along the way.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You can disagree, but stay respectful, sensitive, and compassionate. If you speak in a way that makes the other person feel diminished or personally insulted, he will only turn away and not cooperate with you in the future — simply because it doesn’t feel good to interact with you.

Feelings Matter

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a man who had a military background. As I was speaking about the importance of listening to your children as a basis for building strong, positive relationships, he interrupted to say that I was wrong. To him, the most important thing a parent could do was set out the rules for healthy, moral living, and then strictly enforce those rules.

When I got to know this man a little better, I learned that his son had been a terror as a child, rebelling at every turn of the road and causing havoc for both of his parents.

No wonder, because his father operated out of the old-fashioned, top-down, power-and-control model when talking with his son. He didn’t know what made his son tick – because he never asked him. He never talked with him or spent much time with him.

Listening was not on his hard drive. Telling was his mode of communication. He didn’t believe in emotions. He never listened to how his son felt about anything. Their communication was a one-way street. The father told his son what he expected of him – and that was the end of the conversation.

Two Ships Passing in the Night

It’s easy to ignore the interplay of feelings in communication. Tanya and Kyle were enjoying a lovely dinner with a nice glass of wine when their conversation turned to an investment property Kyle had just closed on that day. Kyle was explaining his decision to capitalize on what he considered to be a very good deal and its potential for a great increase in value in a short period of time.

Tanya was quiet for a while. Then, suddenly, she interrupted with a loud, angry voice and verbally cut into Kyle for making this decision without her consent.

Kyle was flabbergasted. He thought they had discussed the property at great length. So, he began again to explain the research he had done, the numbers he had calculated, and the profit they would make upon sale. He was measured, rational, even-keeled, and non-emotional.

Tanya couldn’t hear because she was shaking her head and quivering in anger. She was totally overwrought. She told Kyle how afraid she was that they would be stretched financially to make the payments. She reminded him of another property they had bought some years prior that had lost its value, causing them to lose money on the whole deal.

But he didn’t listen, thinking her feelings on this issue were irrelevant. He continued to explain until he, too, became frustrated and left the room in anger. Needless to say, their lovely dinner ended in disaster.

When they explained the situation to me later, it was clear what had happened. Kyle had been operating out of his head, using logic and reason to explain to his wife what he had done. But Tanya had been coming from her heart. Her emotions had been running in high gear, with anxiety and fear clouding her logic.

I told them they were like two ships passing in the night. As long as Kyle stayed on the head level and gave only factual information, Tanya would feel threatened. In her emotional state, she felt vulnerable and weak next to Kyle, who acted as though he didn’t possess a feeling anywhere in his body.

Finding a Solution

Whenever you’re in an argument — with a spouse, a child, or a colleague — stop to hear where the other person is coming from. If you’re in your rational, logical mind, and the other person is in her emotional, sensitive heart, you will get nowhere unless you slow down.

First, observe and listen. Then, move to meet her at the heart level. Take the time to hear her feelings and let her know you understand. Only then will she be able to pull herself up onto a rational level where she can engage with you in reasoned discussion and problem solving.

Feelings are real. When they are at play, they put the system under stress. To ignore them is to create gridlock in your communication. You may have to slow down to deal with the feelings, but the overall problem will be resolved faster, and you will become a better communicator.

People often rush to a decision before they have heard all the details of the issue. They want to hurry past the listening stage and push toward the conclusion.

I once sat in on a discussion between a father and his grown son about the son’s problems working in the family business. Several other people were present also. Not a single one slowed down long enough to ask questions of the son to find out his complaints, his feelings, or his experience of working with his father. They all raced to offer solutions.

The son couldn’t accept any of the solutions, no matter how brilliant they sounded, because he knew no one really understood his predicament.

To become a good communicator, you only have to remember three things:

  1. Be a detective by asking questions and listening for more information until you fully understand the situation.
  2. Listen for emotions and let the other person know you understand how he or she feels.
  3. Make decisions only after you have done #1 and #2 above.

By taking time at the beginning of a conversation, you’ll save time at the end… and strengthen your relationships in the process.

© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 7, July 2016 •


About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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