Part 3 – Communication

I cannot think of a topic that is more important or one that we take for granted more than communication. Specifically, I wanted to discuss interpersonal communication…you know between you and your spouse or kids or even your boss and coworkers.

OK, first let’s do a little test. So how many of you recall a time when you were really focused on a TV program and someone suddenly wanted to tell you something? First of all, how did you feel? Were you annoyed or even angry? Secondly, what was your first reaction? Did you try to give them the “1 minute” or “hold on” gesture? If they stepped in front of you did you try to look around them or move them out of the way? Picture the scenario in your mind for a minute because the event as a whole is communication!

I use this situation to illustrate what is commonly called broken communication. It is like making a cell phone call with bad reception. In fact that is the perfect analogy because no matter how badly the sender tries to get the message across, the recipient just won’t get it. The sender absolutely has to get a better signal so to speak and in the case of the interrupted TV show that means either waiting for a commercial (which kids and spouses really hate doing) or pausing the show (which the recipient really hates doing).

This brings us to the issue of urgency. If the house is on fire or someone is hurt then the urgency is high and nothing else matters…by all means interrupt! Sadly, we often fail to consider other important issues of the sender in this situation. Sadly, we often dismiss or marginalize the sender which causes hurt feelings for them and later guilt for you. No one wants that. Just realize that anyone wanting a moment of your time has something invested. That makes their message immediately worthwhile. Kids are the perfect example and they have a tendency to interrupt due to a less developed pre-frontal cortex (brain) that results in impulsivity. Knowing that, adults should recognize that they will grow out of it, but not until late teens or early twenties. So what is the big deal right? My parents always said children are better seen and not heard. I often felt like they really wanted us unseen and unheard. They always had adult stuff going on that did not include kids. Are you one of those parents? Even if you don’t have kids are you one of those adults? Just realize that no one wants to feel left out. It really sucks and the hurt feelings can lead to changes in behavior that haunt both the parents and child later in life.

Well I think the point that we must be in receiving mode in order to enable the sender to get their message across has been made. Let’s discuss talking, listening, and feedback. The intro basically establishes that we must first connect. Now let’s assume the connection is good between two people. What makes effective communication? Well the speaker has the ball so to speak and is really running down the field looking for a touchdown, metaphorically speaking. There should be a purpose. Incessant rambling on the speaker’s part is like running in circles on the football field. Sooner or later it gets tiring and the other team is going to tackle you. Well it isn’t exactly like that but you know the type who goes on and on with no point at all. What should you do as the listener? Well the polite thing to do is give them your attention. Sometimes people just need to vent. A good technique is to reflect back pieces of what they say from time to time. This lets them know you are vested in the conversation and a willing participant.

Good advice for the sender…be brief and to the point. Share the conversation don’t dominate and if there is that uncomfortable pause where no one is talking you should smile and ask a question for clarification or add additional opinion on the matter to help things along. Ok, so what about the listener? Have you ever been telling a great story and you notice the listener just isn’t with you? Maybe they are looking at something behind you are they have that glazed over look like no one is home. Well body language is part of the conversation. In fact out of the verbal (what is said) the vocal (how it is said) and the body language (emotive expression), body language is the most powerful and the hardest to mask/hide. Be in tune with your listener. Read their body language and respond appropriately.

Going back to the example, what should you do as the speaker when the listener is just not in the conversation with you? Well if you are venting or rambling incessantly you might want to continue just so you can feel better, but take a moment and consider how painful the conversation might be for the other person. If possible, try to pause a moment, smile and see if they come back into the conversation. I am careful about quizzing the other person if they weren’t paying attention. It could be embarrassing so questions might not be the best way to reel them back in. One good technique is to take a break. Being polite is awesome so offer your listener something to eat or drink and if they can’t seem to get back into the conversation then excuse yourself and move on.

On the other hand, what if you have a willing and active listener? I love those conversations when I can say something and I see the proverbial light come on. I am a coach/teacher by nature. I love to share information and ideas so this is a pleasure for me. Consider for a moment how wonderful it is when you hear something you like. Now consider how wonderful it is when you say something and the listener engages you with excitement or sincere interest. It is almost magical. My advice…be a good listener and practice it with your spouse and kids often. This is critical at work as well. Get the information, verify you understand and be prepared to brief the information back as a check on veracity.

Feedback is that last part of the equation. It should look like the sender is adding information, the recipient is receiving information, and then at some point part of that information gets back to the sender in a nice loop. This is feedback and it validates understanding or learning. For me, feedback is like dessert after a good meal. It is delightful, but not always available. Let’s go back to kids and your significant other/spouse. Little Johnny comes up and says, “Daddy, daddy (could be mommy, mommy) guess what I did at school?” You can see eagerness written all over his face and even though you are watching the news or the game you (1) recognize the urgency and (2) give him your attention.

You have just invested time and love in your son. Good job!

He says, “We got to go on a field trip to the museum of natural history and…”

Uh oh…you hear museum and think, “Who cares…this sucks…no one cares about a museum.” Now you have to decide if you are going to be the active listener (a good dad/mom who understands how important listening is even if it means hearing something you might not be
interested in) or be a stump that little Johnny has to talk to without any hope of getting through. This happens and it is really tough to get past our own hedonistic desires (what I want and what makes me feel good). Let’s say you choose to listen. Great job Dad (or mom).

Little Johnny continues, “…we saw dinosaur bones and one was huge with great big teeth.” You can see the enthusiasm on his face, he is beaming with excitement. There is a natural pause in the conversation. Do you wait for him to continue, ask a question, or reflect back something he said? Well if you are intuitive you probably guess he is describing a tyrannosaurs rex. If so you can ask, “Was it a T-Rex?” This is called feedback and it is the gasoline that fuels the conversation. If you chose to reflect you might say, “Wow the museum had dinosaurs. How cool is that?” That is also feedback and gives Johnny the chance to reengage. If you wait for him to continue on his own you might see his excitement ebb as he tries to figure out if you are really listening. This is when body language becomes feedback. If you are looking at him, smiling and genuinely interested he will see it and continue.

It is important to understand that we (mankind) are social creatures. We need interaction. If we don’t get it from our loved ones we will seek it elsewhere.

We owe it to ourselves to invest in one another just like investing for college or retirement. You might not see the benefits in a day, a week, or a month, but you will see the growth in love, admiration, and connectedness over years. Be a good sender, a better listener, and provide feedback.

I leave you with a fun memory device. God made man/woman with two eyes to pay attention, two ears to listen carefully, and one mouth for speaking. You should spend 4/5th your time paying attention and listening and 1/5th of your time speaking.

Curtiss Robinson – Soldier, Mentor, and Martial Artist

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