My husband, Ron, was an altar boy from age seven to seventeen. Toward the end, he felt disheartened that so many churchgoers seemed to practice ineffective communications and relationships year after year, as if feeling guilty and asking for forgiveness in church meant that changing their ways wasn’t necessary. So midway through a service one Sunday – unable to participate any longer in what seemed like hypocrisy to him – he stepped from behind the altar and walked down the aisle and out the door, for good.
When he was twenty, he sat for a university exam after his first year of civil engineering. The other students worked to answer the questions, while he just stared at the pages, thinking about five more years of study in a field that he didn’t like. Then he stood up, dropped the booklet in a trashcan, and exited the building and an unwanted future.
In both cases, he made a decision without second-guessing it. He set aside his fear of being misjudged and acted on his inner knowing, without justification.
2. They accept the consequences of saying what they mean. It’s all right to communicate whatever we think and believe. It’s important to remember, though, that there are as many views as there are people, and all people are right according to their perspectives.
Ron was fired from one of his first jobs, as an internal mail carrier for an insurance company. Male employees weren’t allowed to wear open-toed shoes because of a corporate image policy. Ron objected, especially because it was an unusually hot summer. He told the manager that it wasn’t fair that the women could wear sandals while he couldn’t. So they cut him loose.
3. They manage their beliefs and perceptions. Our beliefs are thoughts that we keep thinking until they seem true and become our perception – and all our communications are filtered through our beliefs. So good communicators are quick to drop beliefs and perceptions that aren’t supportive of people and that don’t help a situation.
Someone in my family told me that he doesn’t want to see me anymore because our beliefs are different. At first, I felt bad and blamed him for the way I felt. “If he would be different, I could feel better.” Eventually though, I stopped giving him the power to determine how I feel, by stopping believing that he had that power.
4. They’re not afraid to admit their mistakes. I sometimes freelance as an editor for foreign companies, fixing typos and cleaning up awkward text in their English business material. One client, who is not a native English speaker, often challenges my corrections, insisting that he knows better. Even when I show him the accepted grammar rules, he refuses to make the changes. His priority has changed from whether the publications are right to whether he is right.
Competing to be right means that being better than others has become more important than supporting their worth.
5. They’re clear. Here’s how we sometimes make a mess of our communications: We observe something that’s happening. Then we think something about it based on our belief about it. And we feel something about it based on what we think. Then we say something about it that’s different from the result we want. And our nonverbal messages conflict with our verbal message because they reveal more of what we actually think and feel. Then people misunderstand us, and we wonder why.
On a trip to Tunisia, Ron and I bought a piece of traditional Islamic art made from sixty hand-painted tiles. To get it home, we would need to carry the tiles in tote bags on to the plane. So the manager had one of the artists number the backs, so we could reassemble it later. Back home, we unpacked the tiles and discovered the numbers were in Arabic, completely indiscernible to us! So we turned the tiles over and put them together like a puzzle.
Confusion is normal and comes up regularly in communications. So the best strategy is to view it as a creative force that fuels change and pushes us toward new directions.
6. They listen on purpose. Listening on purpose requires curiosity and caring about other people’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. And by listening in order to learn, which is the best way to learn how to listen, our knowledge base grows.
One of my friends told me that he was the only one on his university dorm floor who could run a washing machine and that he ended up helping everyone with laundry. Wanting my sons to be independent, I taught them how to run our washer and made them responsible for their laundry, even though the youngest was only six.
Listening for people’s reasons for doing what they do makes it easier to understand what they say about it. It means listening to their intentions without being sidetracked by their words.
7. They know when to send and when to receive. Balanced communication includes sending and receiving. The sender expresses in an assertive and active way, while the receiver listens in a receptive and passive way – until they switch places.
Effective receivers listen without needing to express consent or disagreement. It means omitting, “Yes, but…,” and instead, being willing to set opinions aside in order to understand the other person.
One of my friends still holds an image of her sister, from when they were children, as judgmental and condemning. Is she right? From her perspective, yes. And because she believes it’s true, evidence keeps showing up.
Effective senders find ways to keep receivers interested and engaged. And the best way to do that is to care about the other person.
In the first year of our relationship, Ron offered to knit a sweater for me from some gorgeous fuchsia and pearl angora wool. Halfway through, I told him I really disliked the style of the sweater he was making. So he un-knitted it, gave the wool away, and never mentioned it again. Looking back, I probably could’ve sent more effectively.
When two senders express simultaneously, both trying to get their points across, conflict often occurs. They may believe that receiving is the weaker position, so they try to gain control by talking louder or by not listening.
When two receivers remain receptive and neither expresses actively, indecision occurs. And then they can’t make up their minds about which restaurant to choose.
8. They understand that everyone has tells. Our true intentions always reveal themselves because it’s not possible to tell a lie without telling the truth at the same time. Whatever we think and feel will express, usually through our nonverbal signals.
One evening, my sons found a treasure map on the sidewalk outside our house. It looked authentic, with torn and singed edges, a drawing of a skull and crossbones, and a diagram of our neighborhood with a red “X” marking a spot. The guys couldn’t wait to search for the treasure, and Ron agreed to help. They followed the “path” through the “gras.” They crept down the boardwalk “stairs” to the “beach” by the “ocean.” They solved the riddle of the “43” (piling) next to the “X.” They sat in a circle holding hands, repeating the “magic word: yetzirachoc.” And finally, they dug for the “treasure in the sand.” What was under the “X?” The buried treasure turned out to be sodas and candy. “Wow! This is amazing!” they all agreed, as they sat by the shoreline in the moonlight. “Who left the map?” they would wonder for years, always missing the clue in the word “gras,” which is how Ron, who’s from the Netherlands, spells it in Dutch.
When we observe people revealing their tells, most important is to put them at ease by acknowledging their needs and by assuring them that our support is constant.
9. They think win-win. If we turn our biases into our truth so that we can be right, meaning that someone else has to be wrong, it becomes life-alienating for everyone involved and cancels the possibility for win-win.
One of my friends prepares separate meals for her son, always catering to his wishes. Her sister doesn’t want the extra work and feels proud that her baby daughter eats whatever is served. Both mothers are right and made decisions that work effectively for them. But if either mother says, “I’m right, and my sister’s wrong, and she should do it my way,” her decision will work less effectively and its rewards will be cut off.
A win-win attitude requires that judgments, criticism and blame be off-limits. Acknowledging people’s strengths and focusing on cooperative partnerships is how the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
10. They know how to influence effectively. People are persuaded more easily by what they discover themselves than by what others tell them. So influencing effectively means asking questions so that people can discover what sets them in motion.
I grew up in a rural setting, in a cabin in some woods alongside a lake. My parents had guns, and I was trained early how to handle them with caution and how to shoot empty cans off a log. I always wished I could aim as well as my sister who could shoot mistletoe out of the treetops at Christmas time. My mom still lives in the woods and still sleeps with a .45 pistol in her bedside table. A few years ago, she had an extra gun and offered it to my son. I didn’t want him to take it because I believe guns attract gun energy, which he’s better off without. As he and I talked about his motivations for whether to own a gun, I gave him plenty of space to find his own answer, remembering that I could choose to feel OK no matter what his choice would be. In the end, he turned it down. And I felt great!
Good communicators live what they want to convey. They believe in the power of their message to go beyond providing information to producing an experience that can create positive change. They don’t believe that their audience needs to be fixed. Yet they never give up on the possibility that individuals will receive something they need. Most importantly, they keep caring about people, no matter what those people say or do or believe. And that’s why good communicators are the up-lifters of the world.