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Communicate by Listening

Communication is the Key to Success

Speaking Well Isn’t Enough

Your ability to communicate is the number one factor for determining success in your business, and specifically your ability to manage and lead others. In fact, communication is the key to success in everything you do, professionally and personally. I believe so strongly in this, I wanted to dedicate this month’s blog to the subject. To be a leader, you must be able to communicate. To be an entrepreneur, you must be able to communicate. To be an effective employee, you must be able to communicate. To be an effective team player, you must be able to communicate. To be a good friend, you must be able to communicate. To be a great parent, you must be able to communicate. To be a reliable and trusted member of a family, you must be able to communicate.


Did I make my point?  So why are so many of us such bad communicators, including me?  I think the number one reason is a real lack of understanding what being a good communicator really means.  Many of us are really good at part of the equation but fail miserably at others.  As a result, we think we are great communicators, but we continue to move on with life somehow skewed in many ways.


What equation am I talking about?  Well if you don’t know the equation, that’s part of the problem.  That’s ok, they don’t teach the equation in K-12, and even many who go beyond in their education never hear of the equation.  It’s simple and it is complex all at once:  There is a sender and at least one receiver in every communication.  The sender sends the message they want the others to hear, and the receivers listen and accept the message.  Sender à Listener, simple.


Obviously in most instances the sender is looking for feedback from the listener, so we add to the equation Listener à Sender.  In this case the listener becomes the sender, but let’s stop here and analyze several aspects of this equation and the implications for failure we all need to be attentive to in order to have a truly successful communication.


First let’s talk about the expectations and responsibilities of the sender.  They expect the receiver to listen with intention.   They expect the receiver to understand the message.  They expect the receiver to take action with the results they have intended, the reason for the communication in the first place.  In order to ensure this is true they also expect some type of acknowledgement from the receiver that all of the above has taken place.  No problems there, right?


Well, the first responsibility the sender has is to not expect anything by assuming all of the above has taken place.  The second top responsibility is for the sender to set-up the receiver for a successful communication.  Is the receiver really listening?  You don’t have to be mean about it, but what if their hearing aides are turned off or failing?  If your daughter is looking at her iPhone, she is not listening!  If you expect her to take action based on your discussion without directing her attention to you, it’s really your fault when she takes the car without completing her chores.


Now that they know they have the receiver’s attention, it is also the senders responsibility to make sure the message was received in the manner in which it was intended.  If you are speaking English to someone who does not understand the language, shame on you for expecting them to laugh at your joke or follow your instructions.  You can only do this successfully by making sure the receiver responds either with affirmative acknowledgement of the message, or questions that make sense.  “Yep, got it” is not an affirmative acknowledgement, repeating an instruction and the planned for outcome is.  Until they are able to completely do so with the entire message, it remains the sender’s responsibility to get the message across to the receiver. Their final responsibility is to understand what it means to be a good receiver and be prepared to react accordingly.


The receiver has many expectations and responsibilities of their own.  The receiver expects to be talked to in a respectful manner, even if the situation is tense or reprimanding in any way.  The receiver expects to be talked to in terms they understand and can comprehend, and the receiver expects to be able to ask questions for clarifying purposes.


Some of the responsibilities of the receiver are outlined above but are worth repeating.  The receiver’s most important responsibility is to be attentive with purpose.  The purpose?  Understanding what they are being told!  But just as importantly it is their responsibility to ask questions and clarify anything (everything?) that they may believe needs to be clarified.  They then become the sender and, so their other responsibility is to understand what it means to be a good sender. 


There are joint responsibilities, too.  I mentioned respect, but honesty is also important to good communication.  Emotional control (something I have been known to lack at times) is also a shared responsibility, and along with that a willingness to accept the fact that their messages may not be getting through.  What do they need to do in the latter case?  Give up and walk away?  Assume the message was received and all will be well?  No, the right answer is they need to adjust their messaging because one of the responsibilities above is not taking place properly.  If it is the other person, it is your responsibility to point that out and adjust the conversation accordingly.  If they are not listening, stop talking, silence speaks volume.  If necessary, ask them to pay attention…politely…or suggest you move the discussion to another time.


If the receiver does not respond, the sender should take the initiative to illicit an affirmative response that ensures the equation is adhered to.  “Please repeat what you are to do and what I expect the outcome to be.”  That isn’t an aggressive way to communicate, it’s the imperative way to communicate if the person you are communicating to does not know or get the equation of communication.  If you still don’t get the response you hoped for, change your message and see if that get’s through.  If that still does not work, ask the person what part they don’t get and why.  It is always your responsibility as the sender to make the communication a success.  Anything short of fulfillment of the equation means a miscommunication has occurred and the consequences could be huge.


The most damaging thing to any communication is making assumptions that the steps and responsibilities outlined above exist.  Be clear and repetitive.  Ask questions to make sure the receiver understands.  Make sure you get a response that indicates your message was understood.


Set yourself up for success by setting up the people you communicate to for success!  That is your challenge for this month, and for the rest of your life.


Mitchell Bolnick – The Excel Consulting Group