Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Fine Art of Communication...Part 2

Part 2: Floors are not just for standing on!
Resources abound that teach us effective ways to speak. Seminars, books, and online study groups thrive, with the objective of helping entrepreneurs to effectively convey information, whether to a large audience or to an individual. These resources are immensely helpful, enabling us to effectively transfer ideas, dreams, and the passion that drives us, in the hopes of enriching and empowering others in their own pursuits. Effective speaking is indeed a valuable skill, but so is its reciprocal: skilled listening. Either one without the other is about as useful as a glove with no hand inside.
The skill of listening intently has become something of a lost art, which is accounted for by several factors. This list is by no means exhaustive, but provides definite food for thought:
  • The bombardment of our senses by a plethora of modern inventions, interruptions, and inbound information can easily put us into “overload”, making it difficult to focus our attention.
  • A general sense of “being behind”, which causes us to feel stress over the amount of time specific tasks or situations demand, elicits pressure to accomplish more in less time, with fewer resources.
  • Basic human pride enters the picture at times when we assume that what someone else has to say is just not important enough for us to take the time to hear. This is a sad commentary on our view of humanity in general.
  • The very real demands of daily life do take a great deal of time, stretching our energy and patience, sometimes to the breaking point.
  • Simple things such as a high intake of caffeine and/or insufficient sleep can make it difficult to pay attention when someone else is speaking. Adrenaline overload and fatigue are enemies to effective entrepreneurship.
  • “Multi-tasking”, though considered by many to be an enviable skill that enables an individual to perform several tasks simultaneously, may actually result in very few of those tasks being accomplished well…especially if one of those tasks is to listen attentively to someone who is speaking.
Clearly, there are numerous obstacles to effective listening already arrayed against us in the form of ordinary distractions inherent to our modern lives. An activity that should come naturally instead requires a concerted effort. This might be a simple task if two people are standing alone in the deep woods with no telephones, computers, doorbells, or car alarms to intrude with jarring distractions. But the fact is, we function in a society where such intrusions exist, so we must learn to be proficient listeners even in the midst of chaos. Offering a speaker our full attention and intently absorbing their words, whether in a large conference setting or in a one-on-one conversation, affirms the value of what they share and allows us to participate in their experience. How can we do this more successfully?
First, a bit of humility is in order. Standing back and taking a realistic view of ourselves should help remove any pedestal upon which we may have unrealistically placed ourselves, and allow us a minute or two to brush off the dirt resulting from our tumble. In short, we need to realize that though we may be highly educated and experienced in our field, we can still learn much from an encounter with another person. The most learned scholar might never have memorized the exact same line in a classic poem as one of his own students, and even the most highly skilled surgeon may benefit from the intuitive insight of a medical intern half his age. We are all life’s pupils on this big blue ball, and it would be to our credit to remember that not one of us has the corner on the market where knowledge and understanding are concerned.
Second, we must realize that someone “has the floor”…and it’s the other guy! That seems simple enough, right? It’s just not our turn to speak! The phrase “having the floor” is addressed in Robert’s Rules of Order, which were formalized in 1915 and govern parliamentary procedure in the U.S. to this day. The phrase is summarized: “Obtain the floor (the right to speak) by being the first to stand when the person speaking has finished; state Mr./Madam Chairman. Raising your hand means nothing, and standing while another has the floor is out of order!”  So, “having the floor” means that the speaker has the right to speak without interruption from persons listening, and that said speaker retains that right until purposely relinquishing it or until the designated time limit for speaking has been reached. A popular tool used by family counselors is that of the “speaker/listener” method, wherein a couple or a family chooses an object to represent “having the floor”, and as long as the person doing the speaking holds that item, they are not to be interrupted. This method is very useful when individuals are having difficulty communicating effectively, or when arguments are common. The basic practice goes something like this:
  1. One person “has the floor”, and thus holds in their hand the designated object signifying that they are the speaker.
  2. The speaker shares in short portions what they would like to communicate.
  3. The listener(s) repeat back what the speaker said, in their own words but adhering as closely to the speaker’s intent as they are able to understand, in order to be certain that they heard the speaker correctly.
  4. If the listener(s) heard the speaker correctly, the speaker goes on with the next small portion of their sharing, but if the listener(s) did not accurately perceive the speaker’s previous point, the speaker should re-phrase what they said so that the listener(s) come to grasp their meaning.
  5. This goes on until the speaker is finished, at which time he/she hands the object to the listener who then “has the floor” to share what they want to say.
  6. At any point, a listener may respectfully ask for clarification, or simply say “I don’t understand, could you re-phrase that?”, but they must save any of their own statements or comments for the time when they “have the floor”.
  7. This process goes back and forth with each individual having opportunity to share, without interruption, and with relative certainty that the other individual(s) involved will gain a firm understanding of the point(s) they meant to convey.
You might be thinking this is an extreme length to go to for a conversation. But in situations where perhaps communication has broken down or disagreements are frequent, it is a valuable tool for opening lines of dialogue and encouraging active listening. In this setting, passively allowing what a speaker says to travel into one ear, through the grey matter, and out the other side of the skull will not suffice because the listener has to actually re-iterate what the speaker said in order to ensure understanding. The listener must engage their brain and focus on not only the words the speaker utters, but must assimilate the speaker’s intent
One of the most common pitfalls in communication is that of racing ahead in our minds. We might be intently watching the person speaking, occasionally even nodding our head in assent to an idea, all the while we are already plunging ahead to organize what we will say in rebuttal to, or even in agreement with their statements. Guess what folks; the human brain just doesn’t work that way. When our brain is occupied with planning a response, we are no longer taking in information but have ceased listening altogether. It is crucial that we focus our energy when it is time to listen, remembering that at such times someone else “has the floor”… and it is not us.
Lastly, we must recognize the importance of effective listening. American culture typically does not hold in high regard the qualities of meekness or quiet observance to the same degree that we honor eloquent speech and confidence before an audience. Consider the way doctors honor the work of nurses, builders respect the talent of interior designers, and astronauts recognize that part of their own safety stems from the skill of technicians who construct the space shuttle. They are all parts of a successful venture, each doing their part. As business people, we must assume the responsibilities not only to communicate clearly to others, but to willingly assume the role of listener not only because it is unavoidable at times, but because listening well is a vital skill that honors the individual who is speaking and allows for a valuable exchange of ideas.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”  ~Winston Churchill

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