Why is it so hard to communicate sometimes in the workplace?
“No matter what I say,” vented an exasperated executive, “one member of my team refuses to consult with me on the most crucial decisions.”
“No matter what I say,” sobbed a lateral hire who was promised a fast-track, “I can’t convince anyone in this firm to support my proposals.”
“No matter what I say,” complained a sullen senior manager, “our CEO just doesn’t understand my work.”
When collaboration breaks down, blame begins and resentment can follow. But a constructive examination of the situation may reveal a communication gap at play. Often, a communication gap occurs when the speaker’s message and intent are simply not understood by the recipient.
From a macro perspective, the communication gap in our lives and enterprises is well documented: emails and texts are easily misconstrued, and there’s ample evidence that the prejudices and preconceptions we all hold are obstacles.
From a micro perspective, in my practice, I often observe the daily misalignment between our intention (e.g., to connect, guide, reassure, or help) and the effect we actually have on our colleagues, clients, and customers. We crave impact; we want to know that what we say has meaning. But it’s not easy.
Sometimes we’re aware that we misread a person or interaction, but we don’t know how to rectify the situation. Sometimes we’re impact-blind: we’re confident that we achieved our goal with our listeners, only to later discover that there were unintended consequences of our approach.
We have the capacity to bring greater alignment between the intention and impact of our professional communications. How? The same way we teach kids to cross the street: stop, look, and listen.
We need to stop focusing only on our content and our individual interests. We need to remember that the relationship, even in professional settings, is critical.
What if you approached a conversation from the perspective of your audience or listener, and made their needs and experience paramount in the dialogue — and the points you teed up to share were secondary? This requires a shift from “Did I articulate all my data?” to “How is my listener doing, what is their experience, and what verbal and non-verbal cues are they sending?”
Ultimately, it is the listener who decides if your ideas are compelling and ascertains the meaning behind your message. As such, you might as well take the time to really observe the people you’re trying to influence and persuade.
This doesn’t require a YouTube tutorial on body language. Beyond eye contact, investigate: look for the signals others share, real-time, during your conversation or presentation. Our bodies can’t help but betray our emotional state. Is your audience breathing deeply or practically holding their breath? Are they leaning forward for connection or in an aggressive stance? Are they leaning back in dismissal or in a state of calm?
Once you start truly seeing them, your inner knowledge will take over and the emotional meaning of your observations will become clear.
We know we’re supposed to listen. We’ve all experienced how we feel validated when others listen to us openly, without an agenda, whether or not they agree with us. But there’s more to it.
If you can stop white-knuckling through your content and dramatically shift your focus to investigating and listening to the people in front of you, it unlocks your natural curiosity. While business is often about having the answers, good questions spur innovation. You’ll start asking creative questions that will elicit responses like, “I hadn’t thought about that – it’s a really good question.” Through questions and deep listening, you can assess if there’s gap between your intention and the actual impact you’re having on others and course-correct if needed.
By stopping, looking, and listening, you can go from being from a mere information conveyor to a relationship builder. When you do, something magical happens: your audience feels important and seen, and as a byproduct, their understanding and retention of your message improves tenfold.
Now, here’s the bad news: it’s impossible to spend every minute of your workday interacting with deep curiosity about others because it requires being present in a way that’s more ideal than real. But especially in the important moments, with the audiences you can’t connect with and influence “no matter what I say,” shift your focus from you….to them. Be brave enough to be curious.
Lindy Amos is an executive communications consultant, coach, and speaker with more than 15 years of international business experience for many Fortune 500 companies.