Thursday, May 16, 2013

Effective Communication

There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks -- times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently.  To challenge a conceit.  To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity.
-Trent Gilliss, On Being Senior Editor

Make no mistake.  Words have power, deep and difficult to comprehend.  You have the ability to change the world with every sentence you create.

Attribution: Font Awesome by Dave Gandy - http://fortawesome.github.com/Font-AwesomeEspecially in today's world where we have been blessed (and cursed) with our own individual bullhorns (commonly referred to as the Internet).

With the loud chaos of each of us shouting from our bullhorns, it's hard to remember -- or to even recognize in the first place -- that anyone is actually listening.  But they are.  And more closely than you think.

That is why I ended my first post on respectful communication with the suggestion that you thoughtfully craft your message with your end goal in mind.

I have seen some very educated and passionate people share their knowledge and beliefs in such a way that increasingly widens the gulf separating them from those who see things differently.

I believe they might come closer to achieving their goals if they instead communicated in a way that built bridges to their opposition.

We would do well to recognize that educated, informed, open people may hold views that differ from our own.  And we should never attack or judge a person verbally (or otherwise) based on his opinion or belief.  Nor speculate on someone's motives or intentions.  Sometimes in the process of criticizing a viewpoint we wrongly criticize those who hold it -- saying the person is sinister or deceptive or dense.

I can't emphasize this enough.  There are people in every political party and in every major religion who are sincere, thoughtful, studious and compassionate.  There is no one group or sect of people who have the market cornered on that.

We have a great opportunity to create and control a dialogue with the world around us, but we must be mindful of the mediums we use and the words we choose.

We hold the power to persuade, to advocate, to move our world forward with our communication.  But all too often we are thoughtless.  Or we use sensationalized, polarizing language to our own detriment.

If we truly wish to build consensus or solve problems, we would do well to refrain from words that we know are hurtful or offensive to those who disagree with us.  Doing so is not 'sugar-coating' and does not make us weak.  Doing so is simply respectful, polite and adds strength and credibility to our message.  To make significant progress we must reach the other side with our words and that can't be done if they feel attacked or fundamentally misunderstood.

This is true of any disagreement -- in politics, religion, business, marriage, family or friendship.

I am offering these suggestions as someone who has tried it both ways.  I have wielded words as weapons and have some irreparably damaged relationships to show for it.  I unapologetically told it like it was, called people out and put them in their place.  I was right and they were wrong.  I was justified.  And I only accomplished deeply hurt feelings.  Nothing more.

In more recent years, I have given words -- and the people I share them with -- much more reverence and respect, recognizing the power to either build up or tear down.  The results have been amazing.  I have cultivated meaningful relationships with a diverse group of people whose beliefs range from one far extreme to the other. 

They have showed me many flaws in my own thinking, for which I am grateful.  And sometimes I've even changed their minds on a thing or two.

Persuading someone to believe something you are passionate about is profoundly rewarding.  As is realizing a truth that is new to you.  Words give us all that ability, if we choose to use them that way.

Communication can be surprisingly effective, if not always easy.  I am most definitely still learning, but will share a few things that have helped me in my journey to find the most powerful, compelling words:

Think about your intended (and possibly unintended) audience.  How will they react?  How will your words make them feel and why?  What would make them feel listened to, understood, respected? 

Get to know your audience.  The best way to reach people who disagree with you is to get to know them.  Don't listen to what others say about them, find out for yourself who they are and why they feel the way they do.  You may realize that you weren't even addressing the concerns they have with your differing belief. 

I have also found that something else happens when you get to know your audience as real people beyond your disagreement.  You begin to feel compassion for them, making it easier to genuinely respect them.

Listen to the experts.  Plenty of people have devoted their lives to studying effective communication.  Thankfully for us, they use the knowledge they gain to effectively communicate with us about how to effectively communicate.  If you are looking for concrete, practical ways to communicate with people you disagree with, I would suggest you start by reading Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

What tips do you have for effective, respectful communication?