Flexibility in Communication

Human beings 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 that you can’t hear their words and notice what takes place between them. It is pretty easy to see the difference between an intentional connection and a forced interaction between two people. What kind of conversation would you like to have?

Betty started an impromptu discussion with Jane about a situation that had been concerning her for a few weeks. Jane could tell that her friend was in a lot of pain and wanted to help her. As Betty started to explain what was troubling her, Jane remembered a similar situation that she had experienced herself. Betty and Jane had worked together for a long time, and Jane felt she knew Betty well enough to offer 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 speaking for about 30 seconds Jane noticed that Betty no longer seemed to be listening to her. Betty’s eyes had glazed over, her body language had changed, and she interrupted Jane to say that what she was suggesting wasn’t going to work. Jane, feeling a little put off, started to explain her thoughts again. In order to ensure that Betty would listen this time, Jane used the same words with a little stronger tone, stepped in a little closer and stood a little straighter. This didn’t seem to work either. To the contrary, within a few moments Betty had decided that she needed to go, and the conversation was over. Jane was left standing alone, frustrated and dismayed.

As Jane tried to figure out what had just happened, she quickly came to what seemed a logical conclusion. Jane decided that her conversation with Betty had been doomed from the beginning because Betty was defensive, close-minded, and there was nothing that Jane could have done to help her. She concluded that she had walked right 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 resulted in similar? Was the conversation truly doomed from the start, or was there something else that Jane could have done that would have helped Betty hear her?

I think that the answer to the last question is a big YES!! I believe that in order to be an effective communicator we have to understand and practice an important concept: how we deliver 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 from our mouth. This means that we must give as much thought to our tone, word choice, body language, cadence, eye contact, and personal space, as to the concepts that we want to share. In order to truly offer information to someone else in a way that they will be able to absorb, we must be awake to the person in front of us.

Let’s put ourselves in Jane’s place. Are there things you could have done to help Betty receive what could have been very useful information? Here are a few strategies that I have found to be helpful in similar situations:

1. Have the intention of creating a connection between yourself and the person with whom you’re speaking. We are all much more receptive if we feel that the other person is talking to us and not at us.

2. Be prepared to revisit the conversation at another time. If we really think that our insights are important for our friends to hear, then it is important to wait until the right time presents itself.

3. Take a step back physically and emotionally. If your family member or friend is feeling defensive, standing too close could be perceived as threatening. Being a step back emotionally allows both parties the opportunity to see all angles and opportunities that the situation may hold.

4. Have a seat. Sitting down lessens the sense of urgency in difficult situations and can promote calm and clear thinking.

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

6. Take regular pauses. When we pause during conversation we allow fresh air to flow through. Pauses create time to process all that has been said, which leads to clearer understandings.

7. Use language and metaphors that are meaningful to the person with whom you want to connect. If they love tennis then wrap your offering in tennis words and metaphors that will resonate with their experience.

I imagine that you have had the opportunity to utilize one or more of these techniques during conversations with your family, friends, or co-workers. Did your ability to craft your offering in the moment make a difference? Was the person able to relax a little more and process not only your words, but their own words with more clarity and ease? When we stop to think about it, isn’t this what we really want when we are sharing with one another: hearing the other person and being heard?

We can’t change the person that we are talking to. We can’t change the mood that they are in, nor can we change their previous experiences with the topic at hand. What we can change is ourselves. We can shift to meet the needs of the person with whom we are interacting. We can notice what is working or not working and adjust when necessary. We can come back later and try a different approach. In order to be an effective communicator we have to be flexible in our delivery of information. In order to be a flexible communicator we have to be able to flow with our partners however they show up.

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