Communication Kit: don’t jump to conclusions

My grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s mad except you and me, and sometimes you’re a bit strange”. That’s the cleaned up version, anyway.

I thought about this when I sat drinking coffee with a bunch of colleagues. I watched them and marvelled at their differences. I tried to guess what their behaviour meant.

Jane was talkative and nervous as a kitten. She laughed often and fiddled with her hair. Was she anxious and upset? Or was she excited about something so good she couldn’t wait to tell us?

Laura sat back and spoke rarely. Every comment was appropriate, and each one seemed to put a full stop to the discussion. Was she bored, or was she taking in everything she heard? Was she shy, or does she just prefer not to talk much?

Helen kept trying to pull the conversation back to the original topic. “Yes, but that’s not the point,” she said three times. Is she a control freak, or did she really want an answer to a question that mattered to her? Was it frustrating to her that we wouldn’t take her seriously?

Sarah said, “I’m sorry, am I talking too much?” the second time she spoke. Was she anxious that people won’t like her, and think her pushy, or was she passive-aggressively pointing out that others were dominating the conversation?

Imogen tapped the table with a pen, as though she couldn’t wait to be somewhere else. Was Imogen anxious and worried about something, or did she just have a tune running through her head?

The way we communicate with each other is so subtle, so full of richness and difference, and we give off constant signals about our personalities and our state of mind. Every one of us behaves differently from every one else.

So, beware of ‘mind-reading’. Most signals can mean more than one thing.

There is always more than one way to read another’s behaviour. Maybe we should hold back our criticisms of each other and look for other reasons when we see behaviour we don’t find appealing.

Often, the key to understanding can be simply finding out a little more about someone. When we’re in a group, we behave in a ‘public’ way. Before we next meet for coffee, I plan to spend a few minutes alone with at least one of my colleagues. If I want to understand her behaviour, I need to build some rapport with her, and find out what makes her tick. Maybe even start to see the world from her point of view and stop trying to read her mind.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Have you ever found someone’s behaviour difficult to understand? Do you sometimes get it wrong because you don’t know as much as you thought about someone? Do some people drive you mad, but you can’t put your finger on the reason? Let me know. I’d love to hear your experiences.


Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills: ten golden rules

Even introverts like to talk to other people sometimes, and it gets easier if you follow a few simple rules.

Mostly, we learn these rules by trial and error, sometimes called bitter experience. Boy, can the experience hurt. Ever had someone look over your shoulder to find someone more interesting while you’re talking? That’s one sign you may need to work on your skills.

Don’t despair. You too can become an expert communicator. Start with some of these tips.

• Speak more slowly. Your listener’s brain has to remember your sentences, then decode the words and grammar before he can understand your message. It takes time. Talk too fast and you’ll be misunderstood.

• Pause between phrases and sentences. Give your listener a chance to catch up and to react.

• Use short sentences. You can only hold seven things in your memory at one time. If you pack your sentences full, your listener will miss something. Say important things as simply as possible.

• Match your body language to your meaning. How often do you say, “I’m listening” to your child, while your eyes slide away to your computer screen or TV? Do you ever say “yes,” while your expression says “no”? Avoid giving mixed messages.

• Make eye contact with your listener. She finds it easier to listen to you and you make a connection: the eyes aren’t called “the windows to the soul” for nothing.

• Check your tone of voice. Sound impatient and that’s all your listener hears. He won’t notice your words: we all know now that most messages come from our non-verbal language.

• Listen to the other person. It’s so easy to plan your next sentences, forgetting to listen to the answer. Watch TV interviewers and see how often they ask a question that’s already been answered, because they forgot to listen.

• Watch for the other person’s body language. Notice his crossed arms or when he leans away from you, showing that he’s feeling defensive. Watch when his body language mirrors yours, showing he feels empathy with you.

• Give a context to what you say. Don’t launch straight in to a set of instructions or questions, but set the scene first. Your listener needs time to adjust to the new topic. Phrases such as “can we talk about arrangements for the weekend,” tune her in, help her start thinking and make it easier for her to understand.

• Take turns. Let the other person finish what they have to say and avoid interrupting. This matters even more in a tricky situation, when an interruption signals that you are not prepared to consider another’s point of view.