Facilitating Communication

Communication is a two-way street, but I am a big believer in the idea of the burden of responsibility being on the sender — the person trying to communicate the message. There are two parts that make it complicated. The first is that you’re harder to understand than you think you are — it takes work to make sure your message will be received by others. The second is that it also takes work to understand other people, to listen to other people, to make space for people who don’t communicate in the same ways you do. Like everything, it’s an ongoing process. It’s a massive undertaking and there’s no magical “awareness” switch to flip. But there are skills and tools you can learn to make it easier for others to communicate with you.

You’re harder to understand than you think you are.

Heidi Grant Halvorson lays out why nobody understands you and what to do about it.

She says:

You’re a lot harder to understand than you think you are. Most of us sort of walk around assuming that we’re kind of an open book, and it’s obvious what we’re thinking and feeling. And, really, nothing could be further from the truth.

She goes on to explain WHY we are so hard to read:

  • your intentions: “you know what they are. Other people do not. They don’t have access to that. They have to guess.”
  • your thoughts: “other people don’t know what you’re thinking. You might tell them. But most of the time we don’t.”
  • your feelings: “you know what they are. Other people do not. “
  • your behavior: “you have access to that. And, yes, sort of– this gets an asterisk– other people have access to your behavior, and also what you say. But there’s little asterisks there for a reason. And that is, first of all, they have to actually be paying attention to your behavior and paying attention to what you say, which is kind of a big assumption to make that other people are actually doing that.

She goes on to really lay down why behavior is tricky: It’s not just that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s that everything is in the eye of the beholder. This further puts the burden of communication on the sender.

“It’s important to realize that all actions, and all words, really are open to interpretation. There’s really many meanings to the things was we say. And so we have a tendency to feel like beauty is in the perceiver. And that’s true, by the way. But what’s really true is everything is. Everything is in the eye of the perceiver. Everything is given meaning by the person who’s trying to understand you.”

Building awareness of your communication methods and styles and effectiveness is so much about developing a framework in which everyone can be heard, not just you and your own voice. That’s one piece of it — making sure you can be understood — but the other piece is making sure you’re listening. One of the basic concepts in Buddhism and mindfulness is that a mismatch in reality versus expectation leads only to suffering. It’s worth the work to help get your expected communication result closer to reality.

Make room for other people

The first step is to make room for people who are not like you. In this era of ultra-curated media, though we recognize and acknowledge the value of hearing other voices and engaging with other perspectives, it’s very easy to unintentionally filter out voices that are not like our own. Making room for other people can be hard and can feel awkward or not as natural as we’d like it to magically feel. But that’s ok — that’s reality. Everything takes work, everything takes practice.

In this moderately depressing but important piece by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Speaking While Female,  the authors reference a Yale study about gender bias:

Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.”

But the authors go on to point out that there are a lot of things leaders can do to make room for women (including enforcing no-interruption meetings, doing anonymous suggestion sessions, and actively making more space for women to draw attention to the issue). And on the topic of gender, let’s also address gender identity. The smallest actions can make an incredible difference in making space: just ask somebody what pronouns they’d prefer. It’s respectful and not a big deal.

Making room for other voices and perspectives can also be as small a thing as recognizing that introverts and extroverts need different things in a work environment. This great interview with author Susan Cain explores the cultural bias toward extroversion:

In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.

And beyond gender, introversion/extroversion, race, class and the subtleties of personalities, there is a broader conversation to be had about culture of origin. This fascinating HBR article about international negotiations places several countries in quadrants of emotional expressiveness and confrontational behavior.  One of the key points in that article is that you have to learn how the other party in the negotiation builds trust, because it might not be the same way you build trust:

Research in this area divides trust into two categories: cognitive and affective. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in someone’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability. This trust comes from the head. In a negotiation it builds through the business interaction: You know your stuff. You are reliable, pleasant, and consistent. You demonstrate that your product or service is of high quality. I trust you. Affective trust arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. It comes from the heart. We laugh together, relax together, and see each other on a personal level, so I feel affection or empathy for you. I trust you.


(A good followup to that article is William Ury’s talk about negotiation.)

Be Nice

You will not, I hope, be surprised that the other critical part of improving communication and trust is just to be nice. It’s the oil that you put in the communication machine to keep it from breaking down. Be nice when you’re listening, be nice when you’re talking.

In No Time to Be Nice at Work, Christine Porath looks at the costs of both civility and rudeness at work, and discusses finding that incivility leads to leads to decreased creativity, decreased engagement, decreased efficiency, and increased errors.

“Given the enormous cost of incivility, it should not be ignored. We all need to reconsider our behavior. You are always in front of some jury. In every interaction, you have a choice: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?”

I know I want to hold people up. And if all of this seems like too much to think about, and it’s too hard, and there’s no way we’ll ever prevent ourselves from stepping on a landmine while we’re talking to other humans, here are two lovely examples of successful communication.

The first is a beautiful back-and-forth exchange of letters that could so easily have been accusatory and inflammatory and angry but was polite and kind and resulted in real actual change: A woman wrote to Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz in 1968 asking him to please consider having a cast that was not all white. The conversation brought about the Franklin character, and the series of letters is absolutely worth your time. The only effort it took on the part of both people in the conversation was to remember that they are both only human, and to treat each other as humans.

The second example is Sugata Mitra’s brilliant 2007 talk about collaborative learning, in which he describes an experimental education project that revealed kids teaching themselves and each other in an incredibly autonomous way. “Learning is a self-organising system,” he says in the talk, and I close with this example because I really believe we’ll figure it out. We’ll learn. We’ll help each other out and point out ways we could have communicated in a less hurtful or more productive way. Just gotta keep trying.