April 3, 2012 - Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” These words serve to remind us that the art of communication really is a two-way street. The need to be heard and understood is critical for everyone, particularly in a difficult situation. Thankfully, there are a few helpful things that can make all the difference in avoiding a potentially costly misunderstanding.
- Face your audience. Whether your exchange is with one person or a thousand, you can't expect to be taken seriously if you do not appear to be giving your full attention. Sit up straight and maintain eye contact to demonstrate that you are interested both in what they might have to contribute, as well as in maintaining their attention when you have the floor.
- Minimize distractions. It's pretty hard to communicate effectively when one person or the other is distracted, whether visual or auditory. Don’t look at computer if you need to communicate with someone. An important conversation or exchange deserves to be treated as such, thus texting at the same time means that any information is likely going in one ear and out the other.
- Focus on what the speaker is saying. This is the part many people have the hardest time with, especially where there are two parties that are not in agreement. The tendency is often to ignore that which we're either not really interested in hearing, in favor of thinking of what we are going to say next. It is this very tendency that often leads to a total breakdown in communication.
- Do not interrupt. Resist the urge to interrupt or to get defensive, as best as you can. Let the other person finish, so they can feel as though they've made their point. To interrupt their train of thought might add unnecessary heat to an already heated exchange. Remember that if you are in a disagreement, you will now know the entire argument before you respond and be better prepared for when you do.
- Listen and use appropriate responses. As a listener, an occasional nod of the head or raising of the eyebrows will demonstrate that you are actually listening. You may also want to say a word or two now and then, such as “really” or “that's interesting.”
- Maintain an open mind. This part entails not making any assumptions until the speaker is done saying what they have to say. You might actually find that you agree on more than you first thought and if you make an attempt to genuinely see the other person's point of view, it could possibly help you to better explain your own.
- Show personal responsibility, when appropriate. This is a show of strength, not a display of weakness. Admitting when you're wrong might make you look so much like the “better” person that it inspires your counterpart to do the same in the name of maturity. Even if it doesn't, you still look good. If you said it or did it, own up to it and it might just be all downhill from there.
- Avoid sounding accusatory. When trying to argue a point, some people have a very common tendency of beginning with, or stressing, the word “you.” Some examples might include: “you did that,” or “this is because of your work.” The other person is listening for every single reference you make regarding them, and they're probably itching to let you have it the first chance they get. As an alternative, try using the word “I.” Saying, “I was very disappointed,” sounds less aggressive than, “you really ticked me off.” Effective communication is meant to help you find common ground, not escalate matters further.
While not all communication exchanges center around a disagreement, many of the same rules still apply. Following these suggestions from the very beginning might very well save you from a potentially bad argument down the road. What it all comes down to is a show of mutual respect and many communication problems can be prevented by such simple practices as giving someone your full attention, waiting your turn to speak and actually listening to what they have to say.