Effective communication is the key to everything we do. Among many things, what great communication gives us is a fulfilment of our yearning, which is often unconscious, to be understood, to be really known. To be known and understood at a heart and emotional level, as well as on a practical day-to-day level. And to have our needs known, understood and respected. We love to be empathised with when we’re feeling sad or when we’re feeling happy, to be given space when we need it, to be supported, and importantly to be heard – really heard. Great communication skills are so very important for us to live a successful and fulfilling life because, in essence, they equate to great relationship skills – and we spend our lives relating to, or attempting to connect with, other people.
So, if great communication is about understanding each other, how good and skilled are we at that? We learn how to speak, we learn how to read and we learn how to write. We also learn how to communicate with gestures, expressions, and sometimes we can read body language. But how well are we taught to listen, not just to hear but to listen, really listen with the intention of understanding – not replying but understanding?
Here’s a quote from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“Someone said, ‘I can’t understand my son, he won’t listen to me at all’. So I said, ‘Let me replay what I just heard you say: you don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you’. ‘That’s right’, the person replied. ‘Let me try again’, I said. ‘You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you.’ ‘That’s what I said’, the person said a bit impatiently now. ‘I thought to understand another person, you needed to listen to them’, I suggested.”
Usually we dive into our thinking and interpreting about what is being said; rather than listening to what is being said, we’re already formulating a response. Or, in the case above, formulating a way of telling them what we think they should do without giving them space to be heard and an opportunity to discover their own solution. How would it be if we listened to understand rather than to reply?
Wavelength Communication, a workshop I run for groups and organisations, shows people how to take responsibility for their communication, by doing their best to ensure that the message the other person is receiving is the message they were intending to send, a way of ensuring there are as few misunderstandings as possible.
Basically, using a psychological model derived from Myers Briggs (mother/daughter psychologists) who developed their model from Jungian principles, Wavelength divides people into different communication styles or preferences, and by doing so highlights the differences between us as communicators. No style is right or wrong or better, they are all just different and signpost our different needs. Great to understand this when we think someone is being hostile or obstructive or rude – more often than not we’re experiencing a difference in style that we can learn to manage. If we shift our perspective to thinking that we’re facing difference rather than obstruction or rudeness, we’ve already done some of the work to mitigate the possibility of a conflict happening, as changing our perspective this way encourages us to stay in the conversation.
Here’s a big-picture overview to give a sense of difference in communication styles. Some people are direct, demanding and like to get straight to the point. Some people are quiet, really don’t like being put on the spot but do love detail and information. Others are loud and outgoing, vivacious and possibly seen as overbearing and talkative and don’t like much detail. And yet others wait for people to initiate conversations with them, are loyal and friendly although sensitive and quite emotional with deep-set feelings that can be hurt without anyone else knowing.
Once we recognise that communication is what is received, not what is sent, and that it’s down to us to take responsibility for the message we send, and that that same message may need to be adapted when we’re talking to different people, then we’re on the way to erasing conflict with people around us.
And, in terms of the key communications skill of listening, the words of Nancy Kline are really important: “The quality of our attention determines the other person’s thinking.” If we listen to understand, we’re giving our undivided attention which is the best gift we can offer. In fact I saw this quote the other day which sums it up nicely. “Our children, of all ages and until the day they or we die, need us to listen to them. Listening is right up there with food and air. And love. Actually, it is love.”