Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How to Speak to Others So They Will Listen

I got a call from my friend Jason in San Diego last week. He's a very to-the-point kind of guy, so he wasted no time. "Hey Chris, got a question for you. Do I sound condescending?"

Threw me a bit. Usually I'm the one who gets accused of coming across that way when we're in public together. Jason's much more open and charismatic than I am (he's usually the one who ends up with the girl). But condescending?

I asked him where the question came from. He told me about bringing a document to a co-worker the day before, asking about some unclear statements she'd put in it. After he got the message cleared up, he offered a piece of advice on how to make things clearer next time...

I can see you nodding your head already. You see exactly where the conversation skewed into ego-territory.

Yes, the co-worker was miffed at Jason's attempt to help, and reported him to his supervisor. Fortunately, she's a very understanding woman, so she simply gave Jason a heads-up and let it drop.

Jason was, understandably, concerned that he'd gone too far in his attempt. But he was so close to the situation that the reasoning behind the whole miscommunication eluded him. So he called the only person he knew who was a better communicator (I just had to put that in) - me.

I told him that keeping the other person's mindset and pyschology in mind while talking will help eliminate the likelihood of them being offended. There are two things to remember that make that easy to do. This is what I told him:

They're Always Right
Defensiveness has many heads. And they'll all rear if you get even CLOSE to insinuating that a person doesn't know absolutely everything about the topic. Now, none of us know everything. It's very reasonable to assume that if a person did something wrong, they didn't know how to do it right. But do they want to hear that from you? Nope.

The solution? Put them on equal footing with you. This can easily be done with a few phrases inserted mid-sentence to include the other person in what you're saying. The example I gave Jason was to preface an important statement with, "This is nothing new to you, I'm sure..."

Chances are the other person does know something about what you're discussing. Making a rejoinder like that plays on their (possibly limited) knowledge, and neutralizes defensiveness.

What You Want to Say Is Not What They Hear...
(unless you make what you say what they want to hear)

There are always at least two sides to every communication. Two perspectives. Two personalities. The person listening to you is filtering their words through their own biases and quirks. It's not intended to mess up your eloquent explanations; everyone does it. You're doing it right now, reading my words.

The question is, how do we make sure what we want to say is what they will hear? What I told Jason was this: "Take your time, make sure you agree with what you're saying, and ask for understanding."

Take your time when speaking, so you are patient enough to direct your words toward your message. (They WILL listen, honest!) Agree with yourself, in that what you are saying now matches up to what you intended to convey. Ask now and then if you can fill in any holes, or repeat a point you might have glossed over. (You probably didn't, but they missed it.)

Doing all this will put you on equal footing, like the first trick. But these steps also communicate that you value what you are saying. With equal footing, it translates to you valuing their understanding as well. They'll respect you for it, and try subconsciously to assimilate your message.


Some of you have picked up on the other application of these points. You've realized, "Hey, this is true in marketing too!" And you're exactly right.

Every form of communication, in every medium, can be taken down to two people. People wil always be people. Whether you're writing an email newsletter or walking across the office to chat, remember: be aware of their mindset. Use these points. You'll get your message across faster.

Without sounding condescending at all.



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