Flexibility in communication

Humans are not solitary creatures. We interact and learn from each other all the time. The next time you see two people having a conversation, step back so you don’t overhear their words and notice what’s going on between them. It is very easy to see the difference between intentional contact and forced interaction between two people. What type of conversation would you like to have?

Betty begins an impromptu discussion with Jane about a situation that has been troubling her for a few weeks. Jane could tell her friend was in a lot of pain and wanted to help her. When Betty began to explain what was bothering her, Jane recalled a similar situation she had experienced herself. Betty and Jane had worked together for a long time, and Jane felt that she knew Betty well enough to provide insights that would benefit Betty. Jane was eager to share her thoughts, and when Betty paused in the midst of her story, Jane began to speak.

After talking for 30 seconds, Jane notices that Betty is no longer listening to her. Betty’s eyes went out, her body language changed, and Jane interrupted to say that what she was suggesting wouldn’t work. Feeling a little put off, Jane began explaining her thoughts again. In order to make sure that Betty would listen this time, Jane used the same words in a slightly stronger tone, moved a little closer and stood a little straighter. This doesn’t seem to work either. On the contrary, within a few moments, Betty decided she needed to go, and the conversation ended. Jane is left standing alone, frustrated and terrified.

When Jane tried to figure out what had just happened, she quickly came to what seemed like a logical conclusion. Jane decided that her conversation with Betty was doomed from the start because Betty was defensive and closed-minded, and there was nothing Jane could do to help her. She concluded that she got into a mess without knowing it.

Does this type of interaction sound familiar to you? Have you had conversations with friends or family members that have similar results? Was the conversation really doomed from the start, or was there something else Jane could have done that would help Betty overhear her?

I think the answer to the last question is a BIG YES!! I believe that in order to be effective communicators, we must understand and practice an important concept: How we present our information is just as important as what we say. When we speak we are communicating through our whole selves, not just the words that come out of our mouths. This means that we have to think a lot about our tone, word choice, body language, rhythm, eye contact, and personal space, as well as the concepts we want to share. In order to truly present information to another person in a way that they can absorb, we must be awake to the person in front of us.

Let’s put ourselves in Jane’s shoes. Are there things you could have done to help Betty receive information that would have been most helpful? Here are some strategies that I’ve found helpful in similar situations:

1. You have the intention to create a connection between you and the person you are talking to. We are all more receptive if we feel like the other person is talking to us and not to us.

2. Be prepared to revisit the conversation at another time. If we truly believe our vision is important for our friends to hear, it is important to wait until the time is right.

3. Pull back, physically and emotionally. If a family member or friend is feeling defensive, standing close to you may be seen as a threat. An emotional retreat for both parties gives you the opportunity to see all the angles and opportunities that the situation may hold.

4. Sit down. Sitting reduces a sense of urgency in difficult situations and can promote calm thinking and clarity.

5. Lower your voice. This is a great way to allow a sense of calm and ease to enter the conversation.

6. Take regular breaks. When we pause during a conversation, we let in fresh air. Pauses provide time to process all that has been said, which leads to clearer understanding.

7. Use meaningful language and metaphors for the person you want to contact. If they love tennis, wrap your offer with tennis words and metaphors that will resonate with their experience.

I imagine you’ve had the opportunity to use one or more of these techniques during conversations with your family, friends, or co-workers. Has being able to craft your offer in the moment make a difference? Was the person able to relax a bit and process not just your words, but their own with more clarity and ease? When we stop to think about it, isn’t that what we really want when we partner with each other: to hear and be heard by the other person?

We cannot change the person we are talking to. We cannot change the mood they are in, nor can we change their past experiences with the topic at hand. What we can change is ourselves. We can transform to meet the needs of the person we are interacting with. We can observe what works and what doesn’t and adjust it as necessary. We can come back later and try a different approach. To be effective communicators, we must be flexible in providing information. To be resilient communicators, we must be able to connect with our partners no matter how they appear.

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