Last week I had the opportunity to see two highly skilled, highly successful executives – both of whom have a history of effective communication – unravel and devolve into a shouting match during a conversation around the issues of gun rights and gun control. The term one chooses to use is often associated with one’s political position, so I will use both here as the GR/GC issue. Why? Because this terminology issue is just one example of how communication can divide rather than unite people. This is true for both the culture in our businesses, as well as in our culture writ large or our society.
How do we begin to unify our people – whether it pertains to staff changes in our company or in our society? As Gandhi said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” Equally, we must be that change. To me, this means we must be willing to behave in a way that we would also like to see others demonstrate. If we want better communication among people, we must start with our own communication with others. We must consider how it is heard and perceived by others, and how it affects them. How do we do that?
Step 1: Suspend judgment. Assume benign intent. Most of us have very strong opinions about issues that are emotionally charged to us. GR/GC is just one of them. When we enter into a conversation with someone with a differing view, our judgment of their perspective – or even our judgment of them as a person – comes screaming out of us. The person with the opposing view is often vilified, dehumanized, and/or seen as an enemy. This is often true in our own words, tone, and/or body posture. Most people think they can “hide” what they actually think and feel about a topic, but our body betrays us. We may think, “This person is such a ___.” Fill in the blank with any disparaging word you can think of. We’ve likely all had this thought or feeling about another human being when they were speaking in a way that diverged from our fundamental beliefs. A key emotion I like to look for: “righteous indignation.” It reflects a lack of empathy for the person articulating a diverging point of view. If you begin by suspending judgment about the person and their beliefs, you create a space for you to move on to step 2.
Step 2: Listen to understand. This means using active listening skills, like reflection. Rather than just asking questions to try and prove that the other person wrong and you are right, reflect the content of what they share and the emotion they are experiencing in the moment. The key here is that if you are listening to understand, you are not formulating an answer while they are speaking. What? You thought you were the only person that did that?
Step 3. Empathize. Sympathy is understanding the feelings of others. You can understand and be concerned for another, as an observer. Empathy is experiencing the emotion that they experience, as a participant. It is genuinely “feeling what others feel,” not just understanding it. Empathy requires great energy on the part of the listener. It is this expenditure of energy that informs us of how others are being affected by our behaviors. If your behaviors are harming others, professionally or personally, wouldn’t you want to know? Our ability to empathize, more than any words that are spoken, provide us with that information.
Step 4. Hold space. Take a breath. After you’ve empathized with the other person, breathe, consider what you have just heard and felt, and begin to formulate your response. This will help you with your thinking process, and also with constructing a response to the other person’s thoughts and emotional state. What many people don’t realize is that human beings seem to naturally push back when opposed – almost reflexively. Many ideas are like small embers in kindling wood. They need oxygen to feed the embers so that they can grow into a flame. Too often, it is our opposition to a point of view, without empathy, that serves as the oxygen for a fire of an idea that would have suffocated without us giving it oxygen.
I’ve used these four steps to help people communicate more effectively, as leaders and as humans. Try them and let me know what you think.
Let’s cultivate our culture – together!