By SueCanyon | September 2, 2007
More important than written communication is verbal communication. Speaking in such a way that another understands what we mean, and understanding what is meant when someone speaks to us, are two elements crucial to the effective performance of our work each day.
This is another excerpt from my long-ago published work, Pocket Mentor, a book written for employees who wanted to move up in a large organization. Over the years, I have found these concepts to be valid for small business owners and their employees, and offer this chapter for you and your employees, pretty much as written back in the late 1980s.
Very often when talking with another, you both nod heads as if you understand each other, then later find that neither of you understood the other at all. This is frequently due to a problem with semantics. The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘semantics’ as “Pertaining to the meaning, especially meaning in language.” Members of your work group may have been raised in different parts of the country or in other parts of the world and have experienced various backgrounds and value systems. These differences permit people to attach a variety of meanings to each word as it is spoken and heard.
Likewise, members of different professions attach various meanings to similar words. Computer professionals and manufacturing management have a difficult time understanding one another. To management, the words “production is off” may mean the line is not producing enough parts, while to a programmer the same words may mean that the workers are on break. Management tends to deal in generalities while programmers deal in concrete specifics. Many other examples can be found to illustrate semantic misunderstandings in the workplace.
Listening is the key to successful communication. Verbal communication is 25% speaking and 75% listening. It takes two people to have a conversation. As listeners, we tend to listen through the filter of our personal backgrounds and experiences, through our own file of definitions. This file is often very different from the file accessed by the one who spoke the words. Therefore, verbal communication is often haphazard at best, unless we work to become better listeners.
As a listener, you must first quiet the inner voice, that voice which continues to argue and deliver opinions long after your lips have stopped moving. It is not enough to have simply heard the words that have been spoken to you, you must listen for meaning. It is impossible to concentrate on meaning when your inner voice is rattling away.
Once the inner voice is quiet, you can then fulfill your obligations as a listener. Have you ever met someone who was annoyingly slow to answer your question? He may be taking that time to filter your question three ways so he can truly understand what you’ve asked. He may even ask you questions about your inquiry. He is doing so to clarify your intent in the event there may be several ways to answer. Take heed of his answer, because he has truly listened to your question and will likely give you an outstanding answer. Observe the following steps and one day you may become a sage, yourself.
Listen to what the other person is saying as you normally would, by laying your value system and interpretations over the top of each word. Next, listen to what he is trying to say based upon the context of his current situation. Then listen to the same words based upon his background, experiences, and value systems. Filtering the words in this way, can allow you to choose questions that will clarify his meaning for you and help you to understand him correctly.
A popular Cajun comedian shares with us a perfect example of value system differences in the meanings of words. He relates a story where a gentleman visits his doctor saying, “Ya know, Doc? I don’t look so good no more.” The doctor immediately knows what to do for his patient. He takes out an eye chart and begins an eye examination!
If you find it difficult to communicate with a coworker, and you both have a genuine need and interest in solving your semantics differences, try this: agree to meet at a place where you will not be disturbed. Choose a topic in which you both have an interest and about which you find it difficult to communicate. Once your partner makes a statement, you then explain what was said.
If you have understood and explained the statement to his satisfaction, then the process is reversed as you respond to the statement and he must explain the response. If either party has misunderstood the other, it will become obvious and the conversation would not move forward until understanding has been reached on that statement.
This process is very effective when both parties are open-minded. After two or three sessions, each party will begin to see where the other is coming from and going, and semantics difficulties will diminish. This technique is often used in marriage counseling where both parties have a genuine interest in solving communications difficulties. It is highly successful in that environment because the backgrounds of the sexes are so different.
In a meeting, if someone uses a word that you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask the speaker what it means. Others in the room may not understand it either. They may appreciate your effort to foster clarification. The speaker can also use your questions as a clue that she may be talking over the heads of her audience. If she is aware of the problem, she can adjust her wording accordingly.
“What you say can be held against you”…for the rest of your life. You want to be as specific and careful when you speak as you are when you write. The difference, when you are speaking, is that you don’t have the time to put words carefully together, let them cool, and rewrite. In fact, we tend to open our mouths at any opportunity and let that inner voice blurt out things we often, later, regret having said.
“Would you please think before you speak!” was advice I heard often as a child. No other advice has served me better. I can remember countless times when keeping quiet as I listened and thought, has kept my foot from my mouth.
Each time you are asked a question, take a moment and a breath. Use the listening filters in an attempt to understand the question on the speaker’s terms, then think carefully about your answer. Choose your words deliberately and attempt to use meanings from her definition file. Your higher quality answer will justify the short pause.
Avoid wordy answers to questions. The more words you use, the greater the opportunity for misunderstandings. For example: I’m sure you’ve gotten directions from someone who went out of their way to explain landmarks on corners and mileage and street names and number of blocks… until you had no idea how to get there. When you are asked a question, try to answer it with simplicity.
Problem Resolution Hints
Ten percent of our work-related communication is said to be informative, while most of the rest is based upon problem resolution.
When discussing a problem, avoid the use of the words “I think…” when you are not certain of the answer to a question. In school we were misguided when we learned that it is unacceptable to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know”. In its place we learned to say, “I think…” followed by words that may or may not be relevant to the question. We were taught to fear retribution from having no answer at all. As society has become more educated, however, popular understanding of the phrase ‘I think’ has shifted from meaning ‘I don’t know’ to ‘I believe this to be true’. You could be misinterpreted as saying that something is so, when you really meant, ‘I don’t know’. If you’re not certain, say so.
Contrary to what we learned in school, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “It may be this way, but I don’t know.” These words make it obvious to your listener that you are guessing, which is another perfectly acceptable activity. Since your words are listened to now more than ever before, make each word count. Then, you will not be judged as providing information that leads problem solving astray.
When someone seeks your expertise to help solve a problem, you want to be prepared. Keep your calendar and things-to-do lists organized and neat so you can answer ‘when’ and ‘who’ questions with ease.
Don’t get a big head or try to be a know-it-all when someone asks a question about a subject on which you may be the expert. Doing so may damage your perceived approachability for future inquiries. Just answer the question. Seekers will sooner return for more information if they know it is not painful to do so.
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