The communication process really should be easy. You say something to other people. They hear it. They act in a way that is consistent with what you said. End of discussion. However, it’s not quite that easy.
In reality, the process for spoken communication goes something like this:
- You get a picture in your mind of what you want to communicate.
- You convert that picture into words, tone and body language that describes the picture as you see it.
- The other person hears the words and notices your tone and body language.
- The other person converts the words, tone and body language into a picture in the person’s mind.
- The other person reacts to the picture as he or she sees it.
The reason the real process doesn’t always go as smoothly as the ideal process lies in two key phrases: “as you see it” and “as they see it.”
The challenge in communication is that we often use words, tone and body language that mean one thing to us and something very different to another person. The difference might only be small, but still it is different. As the differences grow bigger, communication breaks down. As a result, you waste waste time, effort and energy. In high-stakes or emotion-charged situations, even small differences can drive the conversation in a negative direction.
One way to bridge the differences between how you interpret a message and how another person interprets the same message is to include a feedback loop into your conversations. It is a tested approach that helps to ensure that you understand other people clearly and that they understand you.
It works like this: When people speak, you confirm your understanding by repeating back what you heard them say. When you speak, you ask them to confirm what they heard you just say.
Now, confirming that other people understand you is usually more delicate. You must ask them to tell you what message they received from you. If you do it the wrong way, you can come across as condescending or aggressive. So, you have to add more words, soften your tone, and choose non-threatening body language to make it work.
Here are six questions you can use to make sure you have communicated effectively:
- “Would you please say what you heard me say, so I can be sure that I was clear?”
- “So that I can make sure I communicated clearly, would you please tell me what you heard me say?”
- “I just want to make sure that I am clear. Would you please tell me what you understood me to say?”
- “I’d like to make sure I said that clearly. Please tell me what you heard?”
- “I’m not sure that I am conveying my idea the best way. What have you heard me say?”
- “I may have said that in a way that does not really communicate what I’m trying to say. If I did, I’d like a chance to rephrase it. What message did you hear?”
I offer this list as a starting point for you to develop your own. As you develop your list, remember the underlying idea: If there was a miscommunication of any kind, you must take responsibility. After all, it takes only a few extra minutes and effort to confirm that the message you intended is the one people received.