Have you ever felt certain that you have communicated clearly, yet the other person received an entirely different message than what you intended to convey? George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Brilliant communicators are aware of how their communication is being received. They embrace the idea: My communication is the response I get. In other words, they take ownership for how their communication lands in another’s listening, and they ask specific questions to ensure an understanding is achieved.
Let me share an amusing story that illustrates the importance of communicating clearly.
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In the early days of my career I was invited to speak on a Caribbean cruise. I hadn’t been on a cruise ship since I was a child, and I imagined it would be fantastical and opulent.
As I was packing my suitcase, I had visions of a grand ballroom with elegant ladies in flowing gowns descending wide, splendid staircases. I recalled a scene in the movie Titanic when the character played by Kate Winslet floated down the staircase to meet her beloved, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The thought of creating my own timeless romantic scene, with me in my gown and my boyfriend in his tux, was enchanting. I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Honey, this will be amazing. It will be just like the Titanic!”
He looked at me in horror. “The Titanic? Are you crazy? I don’t want to go on a cruise if it’s like the Titanic!”
I said, “Didn’t you see the movie?” “Yes!” he quipped. “Almost everybody on the Titanic died!” Then we broke out in peals of laughter. To him, the word Titanic conjured images of floating corpses in the icy North Atlantic sea. To me, the word Titanic (in that context) lit up images of elegance, splendor and soulmate love. Our internal representations for the word Titanic were totally different.
Had we not been present, playful and willing to communicate, this misunderstanding could have escalated. Someone else could have reacted, projecting negative emotions and asking insecure questions like, “Why doesn’t he want to go on a romantic cruise with me? What’s wrong with him, or what’s wrong with me?”
Have you ever experienced a disproportionate reaction over a mix-up like this? Or has someone else reacted disproportionately toward you?
Remember, regardless of the response you receive from another, you are Response-Able, which means you are able to respond in a healthy, honorable way, under any circumstance. When you are in a conversation, make it a practice to inhale a breath before responding. Then ask questions to elicit the deeper meaning beyond their words. In this example, my boyfriend could have asked, “Honey, how do you mean it will be just like the Titanic?” and then listened. That question would have invited me to reveal more of my romantic fantasy.
Interestingly, the actual cruise reflected none of our initial perceptions. It was a family-themed cruise ship with flashy lights and all-you-can-eat fried-food buffets. Hardly my picture of regal living. No gown, no splendid staircase, just one titanic miscommunication!
In written and spoken language, words stand in for an entire mental construct, which is different for each person. This means that when we communicate, we use words in an attempt to convey multilayered pictures, sounds and feelings that exist within our mind. Words are like the tip of an immense iceberg, revealing what’s on the surface of deep, rich internal representations. That’s why it’s important to seek to understand, rather than assume you know what someone means when they speak.
Consider this example. Once, I overheard a conversation between a teenager and his father. With his arms folded, his gaze downward, the teenager said, “You just don’t get it!” The dad, who was noticeably frazzled, said defensively, “No, you’re the one who doesn’t get it!” They were launching words at each other, but there was no real communication. What if the dad said, “Son, how do you mean? It’s important for me to understand. How will you know when I “get it?” What specifically does ‘getting it’ mean to you?” By asking these questions in a caring tone and listening, the dad would learn more about his son’s map of the world.
Here are a few questions that you can ask to more clearly understand another’s perspective:
- How so?
- What do you mean?
- How specifically?
- According to whom?
- What specifically do you mean by ______________?
- What do you see in your mind when you say _____________?
Be sensitive to how your queries are received. You don’t want to grill someone with an interrogation because you risk breaking rapport. Instead, center your physiology and use linguistic softeners, like: I’m curious (how do you know?). Or, I’m wondering (how do you mean?). Or, Please share (what specifically do you see in your mind when you say ________________?). Remember, how you frame your question will determine the quality of the subsequent response.
Brilliant communicators look beneath the surface. They seek to understand by paying attention and asking good quality questions to discern the other’s perspective. They listen and honor each person’s point of view, even if they don’t agree. This approach allows them to create understanding and develop mutually beneficial relationships.
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