Killing Conversations

One of the more interesting books I’ve read in the last twenty years is “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” by Debra Tannen. It outlines how common, predictable, and at many times extremely challenging communication can be. No matter your situation (quick plug), I recommend you take a listen to what she has to say.

I’m thinking about that book this morning as I meditate on communication breakdowns, not in politics or media, but in our basic person-to-person interactions we all have each day. It seems the most precious skill we are perhaps losing is our ability to listen with intent. And that intent is to understand the other person, rather than plan our verbal retort. Losing, or perhaps not valuing this skill bears a surprisingly heavy cost.

Here’s an example of a common communication rhythm showing a near complete disregard to active listening. Two people get together for a hallway discussion. The first says “I had the worst weekend” and proceeds to give all the juicy details.

Here comes the problem.

The other person, rather than actively listening to the first person’s story, is thinking of their own story they intend to re-direct the conversation with as soon as the first person stops talking. “You think YOU had a bad weekend, let me tell you about what happened to me a while back….” Instead of listening to our colleagues, we’re just looking for an opening to talk at our colleagues.

In all honesty, this is a struggle many have, me included. How many times have I assumed the intent of what a person is trying to tell me before they have even finished their first sentence? How many times have I caught myself in “self-talk” while someone is trying to communicate a point to me? Did I re-direct the conversation with personal stories of my own that detract from what the other was trying to tell me? And what has it cost? Well, to be sure I have missed nuance and understanding with the people around me. I’ve mis-judged the messages being told. And, when I have turned the point of the discussion to my personal stories, I’ve confused the discussion.

Do you have the same struggles? Or perhaps haven’t recognized them yet? Think about recent discussions you’ve been a part of. How many personal stories did you tell? In terms of what others tried to share, how much time did you spend asking follow-up questions to understand their situation better? It seems our communication is more fruitful if we maximize the follow-up and minimize the re-direct. In the end, the best communicators are the ones who willfully invest in listening without the need to talk about themselves. Communication is much more about understanding than it is about pontificating.

For our team at Hiller, I challenge each of us to strive to do the following:

  • When another person is talking, wait until they finish their point before replying. Talking over one another destroys clear communication.
  • Ask at least one, but preferably two follow-up questions to better understand what the other person is saying before re-directing with a point of our own. There are few things we can do to say “I respect you” better than investing in understanding another person’s perspective.

Let’s build stronger relationships by asking more about our colleagues rather than telling them more about ourselves. The best time to tell a personal story is when someone asks us to share one. Let’s save the stories for our friends and colleagues who ask us to share them.

Active listening is where it’s at, team.