A number of you wrote describing your efforts over the past years to communicate effectively and clearly—and how, despite your efforts, others didn’t hear you accurately, got reactive before you even finished, or just didn’t get it. Communication can be frustrating. No matter how thoughtful and clear you are there are times when others will not hear the message you intend to send. If we take a moment to think about what we know about humans, you might begin to understand why.
Humans walk a fine balance between self-centeredness and awareness of others. As they move through the world, they absorb information—including your communications—by watching what you do, observing how you look (from your body type, clothing, and hairstyle to your facial expressions and posture), listening to the tone, pace, and flow of your words, and observing all of this in whatever context it’s happening in. It’s a lot of data and it’s all communication, so it’s kind of amazing that it goes well as often as it does. That said, if you want to be more effective in your communications, being aware of the competing messages your listeners are getting from you and your context can help you create greater clarity.
Let us tell you about Marina: When we first met, she was a manager at a large organization in a large city. She’s a striking woman who dresses with great flair. She talks quickly and has an impressive vocabulary. She moves when she talks and doesn’t hesitate to toss in some four-letter words when she is passionate about something. She’s bright, quick-thinking, and very articulate. So, why would Marina have communication problems? Well, she has recently taken a leadership position in a rural community at a company that is fairly conservative and is partnering with a religiously affiliated organization. She is the first woman to have the kind of power she has in the organization, and she is working with a team that was recently insulted by a consultant who called them “too small town” for him to help. Are you starting to see some of the reasons she might be having trouble?
If Marina is going to have the impact she hopes to have, she needs to pause and consider her communications. There are some things she cannot control but can be aware of: she’s a woman in a male-dominated world, and a striking woman at that. She is very quick and articulate and often sees solutions long before the rest of the people in the room. She carries herself with confidence and power. If she does nothing else but remains aware of the fact that she may seem like an alien to some of her new colleagues, she’s ahead of the curve. If she listens to how they describe their work and shifts her language to match theirs, she will become credible more quickly. And if she tones down the speed and color (think four-letter words) of her conversation style, people will listen to what she says vs. how she speaks and how often she offends. She can increase her impact with a few tweaks that honor how people hear in this new environment. Her power is in pausing to assess who she is communicating with and how she can help them hear the message she wants to communicate.
Spend some time this week thinking about communication challenges you may be having and explore what you think could help your listeners hear you more clearly.