Never look in your past to blame or criticize yourself for the things you said or did not say. Wasteful energy! If you must, make sure to bring along a spirit of acceptance and a commitment to change. I know I have, and the lessons I learned paved the way toward a greater understanding of what makes for a good conversation. Let’s begin by defining a good conversation: It is not about saying what you think and feel whenever and wherever. A good conversation is a productive one that takes into account the impact you desire to leave behind. This impact is felt through the choice of words and how you script your message. It lets people know two things: (1) What’s important to you; and (2) How you think about things, people, and circumstances. Together, these two elements of conversation define your communication style. Pay attention the next time you comment on how someone spoke to you or to anyone else. You are likely to make reference to what the person focused on such as “I can’t believe he did not even notice the research that went into figuring out a solution! All he cared about was whether I was going to be late in delivering the project!” And, you are also likely to comment on how he/she engaged you in the conversation. Continuing with the example above, you may have been asked: “What is it about the solution you present that is more advantageous than the ones we heard presented last week on the shop floor?” In a nutshell, what people focus on when they speak to you tells you what they listen to and what they listen for. And, it also gives you a glimpse into how they think about things and people.
Habits of Attention
Let’s turn our attention to you. There are four ways of listening that shape your communication style. You listen to confirm and for familiarity when you make statements and ask questions that lead people to give you the answers you can relate to and/or support your position or decision. People quickly learn to share with you information that feeds into what you want to hear. When you listen to refute and for proof, you speak in a manner that tells people that the data is what matters to you. Your questions or statements tend to push people to give you tangible evidence to convince you or to influence your decisions. Your words let others know that feelings, beliefs, and intuition will not have as much impact as do facts. Conversely, when you listen to the essence and for meaning, your words express a sense of curiosity to know more about the person behind the task, that is, the person at the center of the situation or faced with the challenge. You are curious to know how this person sees the issue, what’s important to him/her in solving the problem, and how he/she feels about work. You also listen for moments of connection with the person. Your words convey interest to grasp the totality of his/her experience. Finally, if you tend to listen to grow and for potential you are likely to use words that inform others you are not looking back on what happened (or did not), nor are you focused on the details of what is being shared at the present time. Instead, your words or questions tend to move the person forward in their reflection and solution-making. People will likely sense your interest for them to think creatively, boldly, and fearlessly. Obviously, you may feel you listen sometimes to confirm, other times to refute, in some situations for meaning, and perhaps even for potential in other moments. The question you ought to ask yourself is: “In general, what is my tendency?” Go ahead. Ask someone who knows you well. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.
Thinking about Your Thinking
The manner in which you speak also informs others about your thought processes, and how aware you are about your own thinking. It actually tells them how much mental effort you are willing to engage in to solve an issue, understand a problem, and/or arrive at a solution. There seems to be three noticeable ways in how people think about their thinking, which equally contributes to the impression you create about your communication style. The first is the skeptical manner in which you reflect on what was shared with you. You tend to give considerable space to the logical soundness of the information, the situation or whatever is being presented to you. Others notice that you don’t stop thinking about the issue or situation until you get to a solution that is for you the most logically valid one in light of the objective information. This way of thinking can be described as “Critique of Rhetoric”. Often, if you are not careful in how you ask for clarity or the many times you go back with questions and comments, you are likely to create greater tension and anxiety in others. People feel as though you cannot let things go until your mind is clear. The second is linked to a tendency to reason things out with people. You tend to consider all possible perspectives instead of taking the most dominant view, and more importantly, you question out loud your own proclivity toward a particular view. Your statements also express your thinking about alternatives that may become available in the future. Put simply, you tend to think in terms of “What if?” scenarios. This way of reflecting is best described as “Critique of authority”. Lastly, when you think in ways that recognize that information and knowledge as not being value-free, you tend to use words that underscore how hidden assumptions may be influencing the way in which the situation is being handled. Your “thinking-out-loud” modus operandi tells people that the current situation is the result of a confluence of processes involving people, choices and decisions that came before. You factor-in people’s intention, motivation, and worldviews in your analysis of the situation. Your thinking tends to be vast and inquisitive as you continually think in terms of “So what?” statements. This way of thinking is described as “Critique of Objectivity”. Your statements or questions keep pushing people to go beyond what they think they know or believe to be true. People are likely to become more defensive when you don’t seem to know when to stop with the “So what?” way of processing.
True change in your communication style involves noticing how your habits of attention influence the landscape of your relationships. It also requires reflecting on how you think about your thinking when it comes to issues, people, and circumstances, and the impact this has. As a ferocious reader of poetry, I feel David Whyte ought to have the last word on the impact of listening and thinking in our lives. Here is an excerpt from his poem entitled “The Winter of Listening” published in “The House of Belonging”. …. All those years, forgetting how easily you can belong to everything simply by listening. And the slow difficulty in remembering how everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness… (p. 31). To learn more on how we help people and teams optimize their listening and thinking about issues and people, click on Leadership Programs and ask us about “The Alignment Project”