The Human Side of Communication

Author(s):

Steve Kaye, Ph.D.
Steve Kaye, Ph.D., President, Personal Quality, P.O. Box 208, Placentia, CA 92871, 888-421-1300, steve@stevekaye.com, www.stevekaye.com

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. Everyone can benefit from effective communication. The keys are to pay absolute attention to person speaking, help the speaker express ideas, and adjust your focus to establish rapport. Effective application of these techniques will distinguish your as an exceptional leader.

Communication is the key to your success at work, at play, and at home. And if you are in a leadership role, your communication skills directly determine your effectiveness. The following easy, proven techniques will help you excel.

Listen to Understand. Effective communication occurs when each party conveys ideas so they are accurately understood. Although the speaker is responsible for sending clear messages, the listener is responsible for making sure those messages are received. This requires more attention, effort, and skill than speaking. Here's how to make sure that you get the real message.

  1. Decide that you want to hear what the speaker has to say. That may require you to put aside your ego, expectations, and prejudices. You may even have to change your attitude about the other person. Greet each conversation as an opportunity to gain valuable data.

    I'll agree that some people make it challenging to listen to them. And yet, truly effective leaders are inclusive instead of exclusive. They have learned how to interact and communicate with anyone. This is important because any success is actually a team effort, and the more people you can enlist in that effort, the greater your success.

    Some people believe that they can force their success by doing all of the talking. Actually, the reverse is true. Remember the old Western movies, where two cowboys stood on the street. "Draw!" yells the villain. "You first!" yells the hero. So, the villain reaches for his gun and loses. The same applies in communication. The person who speaks first, loses.

  2. Collect data on all channels. Most people send a complex mixture of spoken words and other signals. Research has shown that words alone often represent only a small fraction of the complete message being sent. Thus, you must listen with your ears, your eyes, and your heart to obtain the complete message.

    Watch the speaker's facial expression. Does it support the words being spoken or does it convey a different message? For example, cheerful words and worried eyes may indicate a hidden message of concern.

    Check the person's body language. Does it appear open or closed, friendly or aggressive? Watch how the person moves while talking. Quick movements may convey anxiety, slow movements may convey calm. Then consider if these support or contradict the words that you are hearing.

    Listen to the words that the speaker uses. Angry, negative words may convey disagreement or fear. A faster pace may convey excitement, enthusiasm, or anxiety. If you know the speaker well enough, compare the actions that you notice with how the person behaves in other situations.

    Often, the hidden message is the most important message. Of course, in an ideal world everyone would state exactly what they want. In the real world, however, there are friction losses, nonlinear equations, and uncertainty. The other person may feel unsure of your response and want to test if you can be trusted. The other person may be constructing the real message while talking through a safer, more familiar message. Or, the other person may be unable to articulate the real message.

    If you notice an inconsistency between the words that you hear and the signals that you observe, you should explore for the real message. Encourage the speaker to tell more by saying, "You seem concerned about this," or "You seem worried," or "You seem to disagree." Most people respond to such indirect queries about their feelings by telling more.

  3. Ignore everything else. As you might expect, there is another side to paying attention; you must put everything else aside. That includes other thoughts, objects on your desk, and people walking by. A woman once told me, "I can tell that my husband isn't listening. He's thinking about something else, he's fiddling with a paper clip, he's watching other people. And I hate it." Listening is a full-time activity. If you let yourself think about other things, you will miss some of the information being sent to you.

  4. Remove the filters. Some people pay attention only to ideas that agree with their views, and they ignore everything else. Accept information with an open mind. If you disagree with what you hear, then explore for reasons. The other person may be using other assumptions, may have had different experiences, or may have better data. The other person may even be supporting your viewpoint through new terms.

    When you listen through filters you risk being fooled. Some executives insist on receiving only good news, which prevents them from receiving essential warnings. Effective leaders, however, invite criticism, complaints, and concerns because they know that resolution of these issues improves business.

  5. Process the information as you hear it. Create summaries. Develop conclusions. Compare what you heard with what you expected to hear. Check for consistency with all of the other signals being sent. Most people can listen three to five times faster than a person speaks. Use that time to process, analyze, and understand what the other person is saying.

  6. Check if you understood what you heard. Respond to major points by saying, "So, what you said was . . ." or "Then that must mean . . ." or "What I heard is . . ."

This is the non-linear, iterative part of effective listening. First, check if your understood what you heard. If the speaker confirms your understanding, then continue. If the speaker disagrees, then go back and repeat, review, or clarify the idea.

Assist the Speaker. You can make listening easier for yourself by helping the speaker express ideas. This requires your active participation in the conversation. Here's how to do it.

  1. Appear pleasant. When you smile (or at least appear pleasant) you convey acceptance to the speaker. That builds trust, which makes the speaker feel safe sharing ideas. As a result, the speaker will have an easier time expressing ideas and sending information. Most people fear that someone will hurt them for making a mistake. When you appear pleasant, you take the first step in assuring others that they are safe.

    Consider the opposite. Someone who appears serious (or upset), broadcasts a warning to others. That hinders open, free, effective communication. A cautious speaker will state only safe (and often ordinary) ideas, take longer to convey information, and may experience difficulty speaking.

  2. Act pleasant. This second step shows that you can be trusted. Do this by offering encouragement to the speaker and showing appreciation for the person's ideas. Of course, your encouragement and appreciation must be genuine.

    Avoid negative statements such as insults, sarcasm, ridicule, and satire. Even if such statements are directed toward others, it shows the speaker that you can be punitive, which instills caution. Avoid trick questions, such as, "What kind of idiot would do this?" or "Just what were you thinking when you wrote this?" These warn the other person that a punishment follows.

  3. Ask questions. When you ask questions, you show an interest in the speaker's ideas. You can also use questions to direct and guide the conversation to areas where you want information.

    Some people avoid asking questions because they believe that questions imply weakness. They believe that asking questions reveals ignorance, helplessness, and submissiveness. On the contrary, when you ask questions, you gain control of the communication. Through questions you choose the topic and the direction for what follows.

    You can even ask questions when you know the answers. This is especially important in engineering projects, because good questions allow you to check if others are working with the correct information. This technique can prevent projects from failing because of inaccurate assumptions, bad data, or false conclusions. Most engineering failures resulted from key people assuming that everyone had a similar (and correct) understanding of basic principles.

    Make sure that you ask positive, high value questions because these obtain answers that move toward useful results. For example, when a problem occurs it is better to ask, "How do we fix this?" instead of "Who did it?" You will also find that other people are more willing to help you find answers to positive questions.

    When preparing questions, consider the result that you want. Then plan questions that open a dialogue to uncover that result.

  4. Accept questions. As a listener, you may hear questions that seem "dumb." Instead of responding with disdain, treat the speaker with respect and courtesy. Ask questions to determine if you fully understood the extent, basis, or reason for the question. Some people use questions for different reasons, including gaining information, introducing ideas, seeking clarification, making suggestions, and checking understanding.

    Also, some very simple questions may lead to complex, difficult answers. Savvy leaders encourage questions because they lead to an open dialogue.

  5. Treat others with respect. The easiest way to gain another person's respect is to treat that person with courtesy, dignity, and respect. This is the key to developing a communication partnership based on trust and common gain.

Adjust Your Focus
Effective leaders make appropriate changes in their communication style to enhance the other person's ability to understand what they say. This requires a keen perception of the other person's preferred focus. Here's how to do it.

  1. Determine and then match the other person's focus. Different people emphasize different things when they talk. The major possibilities include:
    • Results, goals, actions, progress, control
    • Ideas, fun, possibilities, approval, people
    • Teamwork, cooperation, feelings, service, people
    • Precision, quality, information, details, control

    Pay attention to the words that the speaker chooses, listen for the major themes that the speaker emphasizes, tune in to the principles that the speaker supports. Then adjust your emphasis to match it. Use the same vocabulary, adopt the same principles, and think the same way.

    For example, if the other person emphasizes results and goals, then shift your focus to speak in the same terms. If someone talks about ideas and people, shift your focus to those concepts.

    This is important because most people expect others to think and communicate the way that they do. When they meet someone who matches their focus, they sense a connection based on similarity.

    When, however, they encounter someone who appears different, they view the differences as liabilities. Someone who thinks in terms of results could be perceived as cold-hearted or pushy by others; someone who thinks in terms of ideas could be considered eccentric or frivolous by others; someone who thinks in terms of teamwork could be considered mushy or sentimental by others; and someone who thinks in terms of precision could be considered dull or tedious by others.

    Effective leaders realize that success requires a combination of the characteristics unique to each focus. They know that a successful project begins with an idea, requires goals, attends to details, and progresses with teamwork.

  2. Mirror the other person's behavior. This helps establish rapport because people accept and trust others who behave like them. Thus, you want to join the speaker by adopting the speaker's posture, tone of voice, and speaking rate. You may recall situations where you saw two people talking, with identical postures (such as standing while resting an arm on a filing cabinet).

Of course, it is important to act natural while doing this. If you appear dramatic, inconsistent, or false, the other person may perceive this as duplicity. The key to effective mirroring is to join the other person based on a sincere, honest attempt to establish increased rapport.

Effective listening is a complex process requiring an alert, open mind. It works best when you pay complete attention to the entire message being sent. It proceeds efficiently when you help the speaker express ideas. It increases rapport when you adjust your communication style to match the other person's focus. And best of all, it creates success in every aspect of your life.

About the Author. Steve Kaye, Ph.D., shows leaders how to communicate. His innovative presentations inform, inspire, and entertain. To find out how he can help you create success, call him at 888-421-1300, or check his web site at: http://www.stevekaye.com


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