Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Looking at Both Sides of the Communication Coin

Choosing to live in community means opting for a life that is more intertwined with others. In consequence, one of the key predictors of how well someone will do in community is their ability to accurately track what happens in conversations. While that may seem obvious, it's trickier than you might think.

The front side of that is pretty obvious: how well do you hear what others are saying? It turns out that the back side is also pretty important: how well does what you say align with what you mean to be conveying? In this essay I'll examine both sides of this coin.

The Obverse: How well do you hear?
Pathway A)  Foremost, can you simply track what's being said and the general meaning? While I appreciate that sometimes people have unusual ways of speaking, which includes convoluted reasoning, odd word choice (even wrong word choice), imprecise diction, inapt metaphors, and mumbled enunciation, the truth is that not everyone listens well. To be fair, no one listens well all the time—perhaps they slept poorly; perhaps they're distracted by stress elsewhere in their life; perhaps they're bothered by tension in this conversation, perhaps they're so excited about what they want to say that they're not digesting what's being said.

It can take considerable discipline to center oneself sufficiently to be fully present for listening on a regular basis.

Pathway B)  Beyond the words, how well are you picking up the meaning associated with the inflection, tone, pace, and volume of the delivery? There is a lot here. If you're questioning that, just reflect on all the mischief we can get into with email, where all of this is stripped out and you only have the words with which to suss out the meaning. (In writing, of course, you have available the simple tools of CAPITALIZATION, italics, and underlining to convey additional nuance, yet compared to live conversation it's like having only the red, blue, and yellow crayons instead of all 120 choices that Binney & Smith offer in their deluxe Crayola set). 

In fact, these factors are so ingrained in the way we're used to communicating that with email we make up stories about the undercurrents based on word choice and sentence structure, conjuring up emotional content (and then outrage in response to it) without checking out whether that was a correct read. Sometimes it takes weeks to sort out where the conversation went off the rails—a mistake that would be corrected in seconds in a live conversation.

Pathway C)  How well are you picking up nonverbal clues: body language, facial expressions, eye contact (or lack thereof)? Most of this happens on the subconscious level and is something we start learning in infancy, even prior to understanding spoken language. For people with Asperger syndrome this is a struggle, as they suffer from the musical equivalence of being tone deaf when it comes to picking up social cues.

Another factor is your primary channel for receiving input.
o  For the visually dominant, Pathway C may be much more important than B, and thus unimpeded sight lines and adequate lighting may be crucial factors in being able to understand fully what's being said.
o  For the kinesthetically oriented, Pathway C is also important. In addition, it can make a big difference if speakers have enough room (and permission) to gesticulate, and perhaps stand and move, when addressing others.
o  For the aurally inclined (as I am), Pathway B is more important, and you want to pay attention to acoustical conditions, such as ambient noise, echo attenuation, and sound amplification.

The Reverse: How well do you convey?
Do people generally seem to get what you're trying to tell them on the first try? Does it seem that listeners more frequently get you wrong than others? If the latter, this may suggest something you could adjust in your delivery, making your meaning more accessible to your audience.

While you can claim the right that people should take you as you are—perhaps as a diversity issue—you're shooting yourself in the foot when "the way you are" isn't working that well. If the prime directive is effective communication (by which I mean an accurate conveyance of meaning between parties), then it's absolutely in your interest to adapt your delivery to something that's more easily grasped by your audience—assuming you know what that might be (and if don't have a clue, I suggest you allow that realization to motivate you to do the work to get one).

—Sometimes this is a pace issue: your stream of words may be coming too fast for people to absorb (I know a few people who's regular cadence suggests that they're reading disclaimers for radio ads); or, alternately, so slowly that listeners have trouble maintaining focus ("If you'd just speak a little more melodically, it would be perfect for helping me take a nap.").
—Sometimes it's a hearing issue: your being so loud that the volume is irritating; or so soft-spoken that your audience is missing words.
—Sometimes it's a framing issue: not filling in background or providing sufficient context for your comments to make sense; skipping steps in your reasoning, resulting in gaps that are difficult to bridge; or jumping back and forth chaotically in your narrative without time references or clear antecedents.

There is an art to speaking clearly and concisely (the old saw is that appropriate length is the same for speech and hemlines: in both instances you want something that is long enough to cover the subject, yet short enough to sustain interest) and not everyone devotes sufficient attention to how they're coming across. In particular, how well do you understand your affect when speaking? Is your delivery conveying what you want to be saying?

I want to conclude this essay by giving you three examples of problems I've had with this last dynamic in the past year. In each instance it is a story about how I responded ineffectually when I encountered pushiness that the initiator did not seem to be in touch with:

—Example A
I was working with a community (as an outside consultant) about tensions in relation to the budget allocation for a key committee. Ahead of working this in plenary I met with several individuals and small groups beforehand, to get their take on what the tensions were about. Toward the end of my series of prep meetings I sat down with the committee in question. 

Unlike the eight or so prior background conversations I'd had, I experienced the committee members as pushy, as if they were trying to sell me something. They tried to impress upon me that they were a paragon of good process in the community, diligent workers for the benefit of all, excellent listeners, and generally long-suffering through the budget debates. (They didn't make any claims about being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you get the picture.) In short, responsibility for the tensions lay elsewhere.

This was interesting for two respects: a) their story didn't match up well with what others were telling me about how they experienced the committee; and b) their energy was adversarial.

My instinct in such situations is to meet energy where it is. (Mind you, I'm not saying this is necessarily an effective strategy; I'm just owning my tendency.) Thus, I raised my energy after the committee's download and gave them back some of what they'd been giving me. I told them that I'd already heard from multiple people in the community that they were viewed as bulldozers and a cabal that played fast and loose with group process to get their way. I tried to emphasize that I did not have an opinion about what was true; I was only pointing out the major discrepancy between their story about themselves and the one that I'd been hearing from others—that was a problem no matter what.

As they had been forceful and direct with me, so was I with them. They didn't like it. They accused me of being biased and not open to their truth—that my neutrality had been compromised by having listened to others first. (Even when I responded to that charge by accurately giving them a summary of their views—demonstrating that I'd heard them fine—they were not mollified.) 

When asked if I had engaged with others in the same way that I was engaging with them, I told them I was (in the sense that I was meeting people with the same energy that they presented) and I wasn't (in the sense that I was pushing the committee, and hadn't done that with others—because the committee was the only configuration that I had experienced as pushy). The committee concentrated on my admission of having treated them differently as evidence of my perfidy, and I was never able to recover their trust.

My sense was that the committee was not interested in the observation that they were highly combative in response to my having shared with them that multiple people in the community experienced them as combative—an accusation they found slanderous, even as they amply demonstrated that there was a solid basis for it. Sigh.

Looking back, I think I made a poor choice in mirroring the committee's energy when sharing with them a summary of how they were viewed by others. I don't regret trying to share that information; I only regret the way I went about it. Key in how all this went south was that the committee did not see how they were coming across (and weren't particularly interested in my, or their fellow community members', reflections about it). For the committee, I started it and they were outraged that an outside consultant would be so biased.

—Example B
In the context of conducting a training weekend, I had a student who was retired from a long career as someone in leadership. This person had the habit of inserting themselves into the conversation whenever they had a question, often without bothering to raise their hand first. To be sure, others sometimes did the same thing, but this person did it the most. 

While they were generally pleasant in demeanor (as opposed to imperious or haughty) there was nevertheless an undercurrent of entitlement and insistence that I found irritating (rather like the response I have to drivers who zoom past a line of cars queued up for an upcoming lane restriction, cutting in at the last minute—implying that their time is more valuable than that of all the people in the vehicles they've just jumped ahead of). Probably, as someone who was used to be in charge, they were rarely, if ever, called on for their tendency to jump into the conversation whenever inspired (who, after, is going to tell the boss to wait their turn?).

Over the course of the weekend, I got increasingly protective of the others in the class whose comments or questions were being pushed to the side to accommodate this insistent person's interjections, and my irritation leaked into our exchanges. At the end of the weekend, this person called me to task for being so critical of them relative to the way I was treating others. Ouch! 

The truth is I hadn't realized what I was doing, and this person was right to call me on it. I didn't have a problem with their comments; only with their insistence, and how I saw that as disrespectful. But instead of addressing this directly—which would have been far cleaner—I was letting my criticism show up in my responses, and they were feeling ill-treated. I thought I was responding to their rudeness; they thought I was arbitrarily picking on them! Yuck.

—Example C
On a different training weekend, I had a participant with a number of needs about which I needed to negotiate details before the weekend began—some of which complicated how I proceeded as an instructor. On top of this, the person also was someone with a lot of questions (fine, in and of itself) and with a style of posing them that was urgent and interruptive (not so fine). 

Already somewhat put out by the need to handle the special requests, I was less resilient than I aspire to when it came to fielding the stream of inquiries or concerns that were often inserted mid-sentence, with eyes wide, leaning into the circle with I've-got-to-have-an-answer-to-this-right-now energy. 

Again, as with Example B, I was responding to behavior that I found problematic, without having named that that was what was going on for me. That's a problem, and that's on me. What seemed obvious to me (the pushy behavior) was a general way of being for that person. That is, they weren't being different in the class. 

Probably it was how they learned to get what they wanted in the world. Never mind that it was irritating—or that there are other, more palatable ways of asking for what you want—asking them to be different was like asking them to not be themselves.

I teach that emotions are OK, so why wasn't their energetic engagement acceptable? (I also teach that aggression is not OK, and this person didn't understand how their behavior could be perceived as having crossed that line.)

Just as in Example B, this person experienced me as picking on them. Just as in Example B, I had not been clean or direct about what I was reacting to.

• • •
Note how tricky this is in all three examples. When the the first party isn't aware of how they're coming across (they're just being themselves!) then it appears that you're discriminating against them instead of responding in kind—almost the opposite of what you think you're doing! Oy vey.

For a continued examination of this humbling and debilitating dynamic, see my blog of July 22, 2010, "… But They Started It."

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