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Know When to Stop Talking
By Anna Garleff - Founder of Garleff Coaching and Consulting Group (GCCG) | The Seeking Veritas Business and Leadership Column is an ongoing collaborative project between SG Productions & GCCG
"Communications" is as broad a topic these days as "tech" or "marketing". In fact, the term is so broad, and so ubiquitous, as to mean virtually everything and nothing at the same time. If you take a big enough step back from our digital world, you can see that every sentient being on the planet is in the process of communicating - all day, every day - and heck, all night too! Communication ensures the survival of every species. So why is it still such a problem for humans?
There are as many courses about communication as there are mushrooms under a tree after a good rainfall. And yet in spite of all the information, here we are, miscommunicating on a daily - if not hourly - basis. One wonders if one can even truly communicate with one's self.
I believe the blame lies fair and square with the human brain. More so since we started comparing it with computers as an "information processing neural network". Sure, we transmit "facts". But we also communicate how we feel about those facts, even if it is a simple arched eyebrow or a huff of disgust. So yes, feelings. And here's where it gets interesting: some folks are more attuned to thoughts, and some to feelings - you know, the old "head or heart dichotomy". Simply put, some people communicate with the intent of "getting things done" and others with the intent of "getting along" as unshakable foundations for why they say or do anything.
Obviously, these can be contradictory principles.
But back to the brain-as-computer analogy. You will note that it's NOT compared (anymore) to a telegraph. By this I mean that comunication also involves receiving information, not just providing it. Pay attention to any random conversation: You will notice, with a little observation, that it's not a "tit-for-tat", either. There's a constant stream from both sides, simultaneously, of transmitting and receiving both facts and feelings, all the time. That voice in your head rehearsing what you want to say while you're holding your tongue, waiting to respond? That's another channel - "self-talk" - that goes on pretty much all the time. It can be used as a note pad to hold thoughts until you can utter them; it can be a source of self-admonishment or praise; a snarky critic - or an emotional pot ready to boil over. I'm just naming a few. You get the idea.
Another layer of complexity: What you say may not be what you mean. Humans lie all the time (and there are a hundred reasons why they do it. Strike that - make it a million). They even lie to themselves - and that's just if they're quasi-aware of the self-protection mechanisms they've developed (and inherited) over the years (yes, they can be generational). Abnormal psychology is all about the unconscious - what's happening inside our heads in spite of ourselves, and despite what we think to be true, and contrary to what we appear to be saying.
It's a wonder anything gets built, any airport functions, kids get educated, or any sane people walk the earth.
That just to illustrate - very briefly - how complex communication actually is. It's very definition is convoluted. It's a word everyone uses and jumps right into without communicating about it (ironically) or even agreeing on the very definition of what they're talking about!
So let's just say that we're talking about business communication (adds another layer of complexity right there). The addition of "business" means commerce - some kind of financial gain for a group of shareholders is involved. This puts a different kind of hierarchy and a purpose on top of that communication. OK, so "business communication": How to get the product or service out to the end user in a quicker fashion, perhaps of greater quality, better customer service, and with fewer errors. According (mainly) to the opinion of whoever's in charge, who likely knows least. (That's why they hire "experts").
Well, now you're "communicating" with people you've never even met - that's what "user stories" and the entire field of marketing is about. Predicting consumer behaviour accurately is a very lucrative profession and one of the main reasons that AI is such a hot commodity. Programs patrol every device you have and cull for any useful demographics that they can turn into cash. Colours communicate, as do textures, fonts, and types of music or even "beats".
In fact, the basic unit of communication, in its most primal form, is a heartbeat in a womb. A steady iambic that grows to include two voices in constant rhythm with one another. Babies learn their mother tongue in utero and can recognize melodies sung to them before they were born.
But pragmatically? What we want? Meetings that suck a little less. Instructions that are a little less ambiguous. People who say what they mean, and mean what they say. Office talk that doesn't depress the hell out of us, but lifts us up, and encourages us.
That's why it's important to take a nuanced approach to "communication": Who is doing the talking? To whom? In front of whom? Behind whose back? For what purpose? No utterance is a simple neutral reflection of some cognitive pattern - there is always meaning behind it. For example, a simple utterance like: "It's cold in here" can mean any number of things from "Winter is coming" to "I wish we could afford to upgrade our windows" to "Shut the door" to "I feel alone" - just examples. Every utterance is there for a purpose - including those sighs, pauses, stutters, guffaws, and yes - small talks (which obviously are about everythng except the weather!).
Complicate this a zig-jillion times if you're switching countries, cultures, languages, jobs, organizations.
Simply put, better communication in the workplace can take a bottom-up approach. Try being a better listener. Especially in high-emotion, high-conflict, high-stress situations, a different approach is called for. Do you see what I just did there? I said communication problems can be improved by better listening, and how you listen - the type of listening you do - is context dependent. Listening is not a passive state of having soundwaves come into your ears. That's hearing. If you are in a low emotional maturity environment with high expectations around hierarchy and protocol, you've probably lost on this one, and even champion active listening won't solve all the problems. Nonetheless, here are three things you can do to immediately improve your communication, your team's communication, and your perceived value as a leader (formal or aspiring!):
1) Listen with your body. Pay full, conscious attention to the person speaking to you. If you're busy and don't have time to give them this kind of attention, find out how much time is actually required, and schedule it in. Yes, you can listen with your body on video calls, too - that's a whole separate workshop.
2) Listen in order to understand their point of view to the extent that you could repeat it back to them. How many times have you been in a "hot" conversation where what is said is not was meant; what is heard is not what was uttered; what is expressed is not the "actual" issue? You are active listening here, which means - at the most basic level - not interrupting. At a slightly more elevated level, it means asking good questions back to ensure you can actually play what they've said back to them in your own words, and have them agree that what you've just summarized contains the main jist of what they were saying.
Done all that? You still don't launch into your point of view or thoughts. And in a world where time is money, it's extremely hard to resist that temptation. But if you can practice enough so you get resaonably good at this, it can save you time, money - and emotional damage. So last but not least:
3) Remember some people want to "get it done" and some want to "get along". As Socrates said: "Know thyself" - which are you? And if you're a leader, you better find out, and understand that if you also want to be accepted socially as a leader (people respect what you say, not just your title), you'd better be able to ascertain who's which on your team, and adapt your communication style to theirs.
Good communicators are flexible in approach, have an appreciation for context, and know when to stop talking.
About the Author: Anna Garleff is an Organizational Psychologist; she provides C-Suite Executive Coaching around the world focusing on scaling up and leading diverse teams through Garleff Coaching & Consulting Group. She has been a ghostwriter for KPMG, Deloitte and PwC; and a former Director of the Open University (UK) operations in Germany.
You can contact Anna at: https://www.linkedin.com/company/garleff-coaching-consulting-group/