A senior vice president of one of America's major corporations, he said: "You know, Sonya, it's incredible. I just walked out of a meeting with two other executives and I still don't know if one of them really wants to do this project or whether the other one even understands it yet!" "What seemed to be missing?" I asked "Well, I guess it's . . . the truth! Ralph just fudges whenever I ask for a direct answer. I can't tell if he's simply unable to make up his mind or doesn't want to tell me how he really feels. And Jim, he's so competitive I think he'd never admit that he doesn't understand!" Why do we keep missing each other as we try to communicate? How come we end up mainly bad at it, instead of being clear and direct? What has happened along the way, in our development, so that by the time we get to the workplace we can no longer communicate? So much so that I'm called in to work with people on the whole gamut of communicating: showing and telling them how to explain clearly, not confusingly, how not to give false messages, how not to alienate when they mean to be constructive and so on.
Where It Begins
When you were little, how often did you hear grownups say: "I don't want to hear that from you," or, "Now, don't cry" or, "Control that temper!"? These familiar parental phrases set up an internal conflict that can have a lasting effect on how we communicate. We live an interesting script as we learn to grow up. We're each born with a sturdy little spirit inside, the essence of our survival, the one that says, "Me, me. I want. I need." That little self-spirit sees the world through one pair of eyes—its own. It pushes us to take what isn't ours; to hit when we're mad; to scream when we're frustrated; to cry when we're hurt or sad. At that early point our feelings have a direct pipeline to what we say and do. That s how we start. Our parents' job is to move us into a world where everyone's spirit is telling them, "Me, me. 7 want." In order to protect us from instant demolition, they have to teach us to curb and hold back, even to deny our self-spirit's outburst of feelings since everyone else's self-spirit is doing the very same thing at the very same time! This is the necessary process of socializing, of adapting to sharing the planet with other people— who also want what they want, first and instantly.
A necessary process but harmful in the way we do it. In their zeal to get us on the right survival track, parents often teach us to deny rather than to modify our first and truest responses to life experiences so we develop a filter an internal censor that says: "Before you do anything, run that action past me. There's danger in expressing yourself openly. Let's just see how that's gonna play in the big world. Will you get clobbered?" Now the socialization process works because most of us do grow up able to survive on the planet with lots of others. But we pay a big price for it. That-direct line from feelings—to—action is interrupted, rerouted, and detoured so often that most of us run the risk of getting out of touch with the source: How we really felt and what we really wanted. To become accomplished at surviving, we become good at self-deception, denial, and public accommodation. What we get bad at is letting others or even ourselves know how we really feel and what we really mean. And that's where the problem in communicating begins. If we can't be in touch with how we really feel or what we really want, how in the world are we going to transmit it to others—at work or at home?
How It Develops
This process of detaching ourselves from our feelings starts with curbing how we behave, but it really gets fine-tuned when we learn to talk. Example: You're a kid and you tell your mother, "I don't like Aunt Agnes." What happened? You were told: "That's terrible. She's your aunt! Don't you let me hear you say that again!" What lesson did that teach us? It didn't make us love Aunt Agnes. It made us guilty and taught us the first lesson in subterfuge; "I do hate her but that's bad so I'll act nice and I sure won't tell Mom about that anymore." Had we been given an alternative that would allow us not to like Aunt Agnes and learn how to handle it, then we'd accept and deal with how we felt while we learned acceptable ways to express it. We'd learn to choose what to say based on relevance, on how it affects others, and what our major purpose is. But we would have learned what to do with the truth—hold onto it—instead of just denying it. Now, this learned process of denial works well in helping to make us sound civilized and acceptable to others. But it can also have the counterproductive effect of totally baffling the people we're talking to. Words provide so many choices, so many nuances that they enable us to tiptoe our way through a host of delicate shadings that safely mask our true feelings and intentions. The result? What we really mean becomes open to others' interpretations of what we mean. How could we expect a relative stranger to stumble onto the exact inner meaning of our well-couched phrases? How can we, in the busy, task-oriented world of work, expect others to grope their way through our verbal smokescreens until they grasp the real meaning of what we're saying?
Friends and lovers don't fare much better. We groove our relationships into well-worn paths. We talk shorthand and expect those closest to us to understand us with much less communication than we put out for those we don't know. But half the time we don't even know how to tell friends or lovers what we mean!
The process of filtering our true thoughts and feelings long predates most adult relationships. By the time we start choosing friends and lovers, we're so adept at our verbal smokescreens that only a new level of self-awareness plus a very conscious effort at trying to learn another set of behaviors could make us change our hard-won methods of survival.
What We Want
What do we want so badly that we would interrupt and subvert natural expressive processes, at such great cost, to get it? Affirmation. Affection. Approval. Acceptance. Recognition. All versions of love—the most basic "food." Not many of us ever experience love unconditionally, with no strings attached—or ever get quite enough of it. For most of us, those strings, those "You'll get it if you . . . " last for our lifetime and deeply affect how we communicate. So—conditional affirmation or acceptance is one of our greatest filters: "If I say (or do) X, then Y will accept (reject) me . . . so I better say (or do) Z and hope. . . . "
Affirmation/acceptance/affection/recognition can come from many sources, in many guises. At work it can be a raise, a promotion with more responsibility, a visibly successful project, a clap on the back from a senior. It depends on what matters most to you and whose recognition or what kind of accomplishment has meaning for you. But the gratification of this primary need is at the very heart of the unconscious choices we make as we communicate.
It's little wonder, then, that in those places where we have the biggest personal investment, with the biggest need for return, we would be the most careful and, therefore, the most withheld. Just compare how much freer you feel complaining about exactly what's wrong to a stranger, like a waiter, than you do to those you work or live with. For many people, the more we have to lose, the worse we get at being direct and explicit. Therefore, as adults, it's much rarer to see people able to deal with conflict or any other form of self expression by being direct. The risk seems too great.
So—to communicate in the workplace we need:
• To know what we really mean—inside—before it ever gets to the outside world.
• To be able to make informed choices about what we say and how we say it.
• To use some of that instinctive knowledge of other people we picked up in our fight for survival to predict how other people would respond to what we'll say.
• To discover the best and most productive way to put our requests and to give our bad news.
WHAT MAKES PEOPLE LISTEN
Three basic factors shape the answer to every potential listener's challenging unspoken question: "Why should I listen?"
• Who's Telling
• How They Tell It
Let's not get too theoretical. Since you belong to the same species as your potential listeners, to figure out what basically motivates them, think about yourself for a moment. What, really, deep down is the prime motivator that pushes you to do whatever you do—not just listen? It's that little self-spirit you were born with, the one I mentioned the one that went underground but that never really went away as your parents helped you get socialized. Think about yourselves. Isn't self-interest at the center of what makes you, all of us, tick? It motivates you to want, to pursue, to be attracted to anything that looks like it's practical, fulfilling, enriching, or helpful for you. And it never works if someone else simply tells you it's good for you. You have to see its applicability for yourself. Sometimes you even get attracted to what you've learned you shouldn't do, because other self-interest components (pleasure; revolt against the rules; "just this once "; to heck with the other guy) outweigh what the head and the conscience try to restrict. Gratifying one's self-interest is an instinct that motivates us without even needing to come to the conscious surface too often. Test yourself.
What makes you listen or pay attention?
• The newspaper. What do you read first and why? What gets you
past the headlines? What gets you to turn to the follow-up page? Isn't itthat you think: "I want to know that. I need to know that. I've never heard of that." It all has to do with fulfilling various needs of "I."
• The weekend. What do you find yourself doing? Obviously, with choices, you go for the juiciest version of what you like best. But what about the seemingly negative decisions like going somewhere you'd rather not? If others want to go, and it means keeping peace with friend or family, you weigh your personal first choice against what the other issues are and decide on which self-interest is best served. True? Then you either acquiesce and go, for peace, or decide the wrath is worth enduring and stay. But both are filtered first through what's good for you.
• At work. Who do you call back and how quickly? Which assignments do you finish first? What stimulates you to learn something new? It all revolves around the same motivation:
People mostly do what they want to do. Therefore: To create an attentive, willing audience, to involve
people in that dialogue I mentioned, you first need to direct your self-interest beam to shine on the dark recesses of another's self-interest. You need to learn enough about your audience to discover their self-interest, their needs, their motivations, in order to get them willing to listen to you. Too often we send our messages c/o General Delivery. Unless you can point your communique toward your unique audience—specific addressees who will become involved in hearing, absorbing, and accepting that message—it's a space shot with no destination. And it's not that difficult to do. At work, much of the learning about your audience has come from your already sharing so many common experiences. Not just the basic human factors like eating lunch, wanting a raise, fear of being fired and/or a wish for status and attention, but the ongoing reality that you work together.
• You both share a common workplace culture.
• You both know the mechanics of how to get things done there (if not all the same nuances).
• You both interact with the same cast of characters.
• You're exposed to each other more hours in the day than to any member of your family or friends, by a lot.
Therefore, you already have an inside track on your co-worker's self-interest. So the upshot is that the number-one way to get people to listen is to discover and show what's in it for them. It's to let them know that you understand their self-interest by focusing on their point of view at the start. Before you tell them about yours. That will motivate them to tune in.
The next factor that makes people listen is how they perceive the teller. Needing to know who's telling is built into the nature of listening itself. When you listen, you give power to another. Although the power may be temporary and you keep an active internal debate going inside as you listen, basically you're in a passive state. Something is being done to you. You're not in control—yet. So listening is a big gift, given to the teller by the receiver. Therefore, who's "doing it to you," who's getting your gift, matters mightily. Trust is, and always has been, a hard-won commodity, not freely given. Societies have always devised tests for "friend or foe."
For example, do you know the origin of a salute? Why the right hand at the brow? It comes from medieval times when men in armor lifted their visors with an empty right hand to show who they were and that they had no weapon. And we still do it: We shake right hands and make eye contact as we great each other. So—whether it was showing the face or knowing the password, before a person was welcomed into our midst the first encounter had to establish his credentials, showing us who he was and how he meant to relate to us.
Instinctively, we have always been wary of others, needing to know what their intentions are and what to expect before we let them in. We're still wary of others today. When someone says, "Give me the power to
tell you, to sell you, to hold sway while you listen," our instincts are still alert. We're still asking:
"Friend or foe?"
"Are you for me?"
"Useful to me?"
"What happens if I let you in?"
To answer, we test. We pick up signals, based first of all on our instincts, life experiences, and preferences. This always comes before we confer the mantle on whom we trust or admire, and who's worthy of our
We test in two ways:
• First we notice and respond instinctively to personal style: how the teller strikes us, person to person.
• Then we shore that up by intellectually considering some hard-nosed questions about who this person is and how he/she relates to our lives. (Notice how this also follows the order in which I introduced myself, the contents of the book, and my credentials to you at the beginning.) Writer Hamlin,Sonya's offers more knowledge on how to talk so people listen.