Success Builders Inc. Article of The Month
April, 2000

Can We Talk?

By Barbara Poole

Let's be honest. I know we've all come to rely on our e-mail and voice mail and fax machines over the past decade. We're a wired society that prides itself on instant information and the ability to reach anyone anywhere. But don't you sometimes find yourself wishing we could just talk?

I learned about the fine art of conversation on my grandmother's front porch. She lived in an old house that had been in the family for several generations, and its best feature was a huge wrap-around, rocking chair porch. What made this porch so special was the ritual it fostered: Every night, when the weather would allow it, family and friends would gather on the porch to relax and talk. The kids would chase fireflies in the front yard, while the adults would rock back and forth and share the big and little things that had made up their days.
We want to believe that all of our gadgets have made us better communicators than ever before. And yet, when I talk with my clients about the biggest challenges they face in their organizations, the number one issue that inevitably comes up is problems with communication. How can this be?

The truth is, what we've really gotten good at is passing on information. Some of it is useful, and some of it is electronic overkill, but very little of it represents real communication. My view of communication is that it is the magic that occurs when people come together in conversation with a genuine openness to the ideas, concerns and needs of others. It happens in "real time", and it's often spontaneous. These opportunities for true dialogue are what lead to creativity being sparked and problems being solved.

So does this mean that any time at least two people get out from behind the computer screen or connect with a real voice on the other end of the phone line that good communication will take place? Hardly. Authentic dialogue is part art and part science. It involves specific skills and strategies, as well as a commitment to a certain way of being in relationship with others. Here are some of the ingredients for moving beyond a mere exchange of information to a place of rich and productive communication:

  1. Check for the presence of equality, empathy, and openness. Public opinion guru Daniel Yankelovich describes these as the core requirements for effective dialogue. These elements reflect the nature of the relationship between the people involved, and pave the way for a true meeting of the minds vs. a pecking order exchange. How do you achieve these conditions? To a large extent, it involves committing to an atmosphere of honesty and respect in the exchange, and that means getting over the need to be "right".

  2. Hear what is being said in the moment. Most of us don't live in the moment; we live in the past or the future. Want a good example? Think about the last time you drove home from work, pulled into your driveway, and as you turned off the ignition, realized that you had no recollection of the drive home. This is probably because you were either rehashing the events of the day just ended, or thinking ahead to what was coming up at home in the evening. This pattern plays itself out in conversations when, rather than truly hearing what the other person is saying, we're busy thinking about what we want to say next. Stay in the moment. You'll realize you're hearing people in a very different way.

  3. Practice "add-on" thinking. This picks up where number 2 above leaves off. When we're busy thinking about what we want to say next vs. what the other person is currently saying, our response often begins with the phrase, "Yes, but….." Yes-but language is divisive. It implies that there was something missing or incorrect in the point that was just made. A simple strategy that can bring profound results is to substitute the phrase "Yes, and….." for yes-but statements. Yes-and thinking is additive and collaborative. It builds on the previous statement rather than refuting it. Put this technique into action on your team and just watch the level of innovation rise.

  4. Listen for what is not being said in addition to what is said. This means listening for the message behind the message, and it allows us to get into the heart and soul of the other person. What do you listen for? Things like fears, concerns, hopes, and dreams. Be willing to reflect your hunches about these unspoken messages. By acknowledging, "It sounds like you might be worried about……" you can give the other person permission and encouragement to move to a deeper level of honesty in the conversation.

  5. Suspend your judgement. Ineffective conversations often happen because the people involved have a win-lose orientation. This means that somebody has to be right and someone has to be wrong. The natural outgrowth of this mindset is to judge (either consciously or unconsciously) the merits of what the other person has to say. Moving to a win-win framework requires suspending judgment and being open to the ideas put forth by the other person. Part 2 of this point involves actively seeking common ground, rather than focusing on differences.

Notice how most of these tips involve ways of being and ways of listening vs. ways of speaking? That's because good communication is 90% about having the right mindset and listening effectively, and only 10% about what we actually have to say. There's an old saying that goes something like, "It's far better to ask some of the questions than to have all of the answers." Words to live by.

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