How To Get Better Communication

I’m sure you will have heard the saying ‘I say what I mean and I mean what I say.’

If only communication was that simple, we wouldn’t spend our lives in a perpetual state of conflict and misunderstanding. Take the simple phrase ‘that wasn’t what I wanted.’ You couldn’t be clearer. Could you?

Well let’s consider that. If I say ‘that wasn’t what I wanted’, what I really mean is, ‘I wanted something else’. Possibly something I’m certain I’d explained quite clearly to you, or potentially something I hadn’t explained at all but assumed you would know.

But as we all know communication is second nature to us all. After all, don’t we communicate every minute of every day?

Communication though is not nearly as easy as we let ourselves believe. But there are some clearly defined approaches that can help.

1. Know your own and other peoples ‘default’ communication styles

This is most certainly the starting point. Without knowing your own and other peoples starting points there is little likelihood of understanding and effective communication.

So, how do we do this so we can understand and be more easily understood by other people (at least most of the time)?

In his book The Emotions of Normal People, published in 1928, Dr William Marston took a very different tack from other psychologists of the day who tended to focus on illness or deviance. Dr Marston wanted to understand how we can better understand each other in normal situations, and indeed how our behaviour changed from situation to situation. Marston found there to be four main personality traits base on our perceptions of our environment and of ourselves within that environment. The four personality traits, or ‘default’ traits, are Dominant, Influencer, Steadiness and Conscientious.

Marston’s research became known as the DISC behavioural model. If you know your own and other’s ‘default’ traits you will be in a position to communicate more effectively, cut off potential conflict situations at the pass, and influence your own or your team’s potential for success.

So what are these ‘default’ styles?

• Dominant styles want to ‘tell’ it as it is. They tend to be direct and to the point. When communicating with a D the best approach is to be direct, don’t waffle, be brief and keep it solutions orientated.
• Influencer styles want to ‘sell’ it through persuasion, positivity and fun. They tend to sell the big picture idea rather than sweat the detail. When communicating with an I the best approach again is to keep it brief, but light and upbeat, with not too much detail.
• Steadiness styles want to ‘listen and consult’. They tend to want a friendly, conflict free and unhurried approach. When communicating with an S give lots of time for them to reflect so they can decide at a steady pace and don’t come across as too challenging.
• Conscientious styles want it ‘written down’ with lots of attention to detail and clearly defined explanations. The tend to want a more distant, professional approach. When communicating with a C give lots of data, quality responses and show you have considered the risks involved.

2. Truly listen

There is an old saying ‘we have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’. I rarely come across this in practice. Too often we are desperate to get our two-pennies worth in so spend most of our time thinking what we will be saying next and looking for the gap that will allow us to interject.

Let’s be honest. Listening is hard.

Listening is about being willing to focus on the other person rather than the self. This is energy intensive (so can be tiring) and can make us feel vulnerable (because we might not know what we are supposed to say next). But in fact active and focused listening allows us to hear what is truly being said and opens up opportunities for higher quality questions.

On the one hand this illustrates to the other person that they are truly being listened to and builds rapport and their self-esteem. And on the other hand enables you to get the core root of what is really being communicated.

3. Clarity in our speech

If we refer back to our opening illustration, we can better see what clarity on your speech might mean.

Let’s consider that simple phrase ‘that wasn’t what I wanted.’

When I say ‘that wasn’t what I wanted’, did I really mean, ‘I wanted something else’. Possibly something I’m certain I’d explained quite clearly to you, or potentially something I hadn’t explained at all but assumed you would know.

Or did I really mean;
• ‘Let’s fight about this because you are challenging my power base’.
• Or possibly ‘I don’t like you anymore’.
• Or what about ‘I don’t appreciate what you have done and all the extra work you put in’.
• But it could just as easily have been ‘you’ve done this all wrong, your incompetent’.

The best approach I know to deal with this is through what Bev James, Author of DO IT! OR DITCH IT, called the ‘DISC walk’. When we need to communicate something of importance try looking at your phrase from the perspective of each of the DISC personality styles.

4. Non-verbal

The non-verbal aspects of communication are often overlooked for the more obvious (whether verbal or written). Yet non-verbal cues such as body language, including facial expression, tone and pace of voice have a powerful impact on how we understand the message being communicated.

Indeed, the non-verbal aspects are all the ‘first impressions’ that will enable our message to get through or cause it to get blocked. There needs to be congruence between the ‘image’ we convey and the other persons ‘default’ style, as well as congruence between the image and the message. A difficult balancing act.

To deal with this we need to consider closely those things which can help or could hinder effective communication:
• Stance – is it open or closed? Are your hands open and exposed or closed and bunched? Are your legs firmly planted and balanced or crossed?
• Eye contact – is there contact or are they diverted? (be aware though that different cultures have different expectations around eye contact).
• Tone of voice – is it reasoned, aggressive, excited or bored?
• Pace – is the voice quick, even or slow? Clipped or rhythmic?

5. Written

If we refer back to our four DISC personality traits, each has a preferred written style.

• Dominant styles are likely to use bullet points that will be short and concise. In fact, in emails the whole message might be typed in the subject line.
• Influencer styles are the great talkers, but in written format they will also tend to use bullet points but with a friendlier range of words. In emails they will likely start and end on much more pleasantries.
• Steadiness styles are the great listeners. In the written format they can expect more detail, especially in relation to ‘why’ and ‘how this is likely to impact on the team’. In emails you need to be careful there is no ambiguity.
• Conscientious styles want everything written down. There emails will be very long due to their need to include lots of attention to detail. As a consequence, these are unlikely to be read by either a D or an I who will only read the headline.

6. Story telling

Stories are how we learn.

There are great advancements taking place in the fields of neuroscience that are showing us what the story tellers of old, in the oral tradition, have always known: our biology drives our emotions, such as the release of oxytocin (the feel good chemical) when we hear good aspects in a story, or the release of dopamine from our limbic (reward center) that triggers feelings of hope and optimism when we hear happy endings.

The old notion of having a beginning, middle and end to your story (message being communicated) relates specifically to our expected pattern that makes things easily memorable. This is related to what is called ‘episodic’ memory; the brain’s own need for direction and pattern, for cause and effect.

Bringing it all together

Communication has no quick fix, but does have predictable approaches that can minimize confusion and conflict, and ensure we get across as near to the message we are trying to convey as is possible. In a world which is becoming more complex, ambiguous and uncertain there is even more of a need for communication through well-crafted stories.