One of the things that stops people from starting conversations about things that matter to them is fear of not speaking clearly or not having the right words. This is one of the reasons that people over-prepare. When we are afraid, it is easy to put too much emphasis on what we want to say.
Fear narrows our focus. Our brain looks for security and safety and risk management. In a hard conversation, we use words as the vehicle for trying to achieve important goals, so the fear-driven brain focuses on finding the right words as a way of assuring that we meet our goals. This focus on precise words ignores an important facet of language.
The message we communicate is created by the listener.
When we speak, we have an intent about what we want to say. We use words, tone of voice, and body language as effectively as we can to convey our intention.
Once we have spoken, the listener’s brain takes in all the information and attempts to create an understanding. They interpret your tone of voice and the words you used in the context of the conversation based on their past experiences with you, their current emotional state, and the specific meanings they have for the words you used.
No two people use words precisely the same way.
Every word we use has a meaning to us that is an accumulation of knowledge from many sources. There is a meaning ascribed to the word by users of the language generally – the dictionary definition. We learn most words contextually, so we also have a pattern of images, emotions, and contextual connotations associated with words.
Even if words only had dictionary definitions, we wouldn’t always understand a sentence the way it was intended. Many words have a range of meanings, including some words that can be used in contradictory ways. When we hear a word in a sentence, we use the context of the conversation to decide which meaning we think is intended. We are right often enough that the system works, but not always.
Add contextual meanings based on personal experience to the meaning of a word, and you realize that the meaning of any sentence is always approximate.
No one will listen to a sentence you speak (or write) and know exactly what you meant to convey.
At first, understanding this may feel like an overwhelming obstacle in the face of high stakes conversations, but it is an opportunity in disguise.
There are wrong words, but no perfect words.
Because nobody uses language in exactly the same way, you can stop trying to find the perfect words. What ever words you use will be your best guess as to what will convey your intended meaning.
Some words are obviously wrong based on their dictionary definition. And sometimes you know a word is wrong is a specific context. Don’t use those words. The rest are probably good enough.
Three Tips for Using Good Enough Words
Because words are approximate, you must use other tools to make sure you communicate well.
- Be aware of your body language.
- Add relevant context to what you say.
- Check for understanding.
Be aware of your body language.
I am not going to get very specific about body language here. There are lots of great resources for specific training. You can find a good summary here.
If you are not self-aware about your body language, a great place to start is by noticing other people’s body language. When you are out and about, practice identifying the assumptions you are making about other people and what they mean based on their positioning, gestures, posture, pace, eye contact, and activity level.
Also practice noticing your own positioning, gestures, posture, pace, eye contact, and activity level. Just be curious. Don’t judge; just notice. As you practice noticing what you are doing in any given moment, you will start to see patterns and learn your habitual body language.
Once you have a sense of your own habits, you can try own some different ways of being. To directly improve your communication, focus on stretching your body usage based on your observations of other people and what you want to convey.
Add relevant context to what you say.
When we speak, we choose words based on our understandings of the social context as well as our personal experiences. We forget that other people understand social contexts differently, make different assumptions about expected roles and goals, and are filtering all their interpretations of the context through their own perspectives.
When we want to increase understanding, stating our goals and perspectives explicitly can help.
For example, if we want to address a difficult issue because it is getting in the way of a direct report’s effectiveness at work, explicitly setting the context as one of trying to help the employee and being focused on the work can increase the employee’s willingness to try a new approach.
Relevant context often addresses why it is important to have a hard conversation and presents a perspective from which everybody involved can look at the issue as a joint problem to solve.
The most important part of setting a context effectively is that you be genuine. This is not a time to try to manipulate someone – they will see through that enough to be irritated at best.
The more challenging the conversation is likely to be, the more important it is to establish a context that invites the other person in rather than pushing them away.
Check for understanding.
Finally, it is important to remember that communication doesn’t stop when you finish speaking. The final stage of communication is the interpretation of your words and the context by the listener.
You will not know whether you communicated effectively or not without asking the person you were talking to what they heard.
Do not ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you understand?” and expect that you will learn what you need to know. If their brain can make sense of what you said, they will answer, “yes” and you will think you were successful, and any misunderstanding that occurred will become the foundation on which whatever comes next is built.
Instead, ask, “What did you get from what I just said?” or something similar. You want to ask about the content of their understanding, because that will tell you whether you need to get more specific, bring in an example, or otherwise clarify your point.
Start with Good Enough Words and Then Be Curious About Their Impact
There are no perfect words, only words that are good enough to get started. The heart of any effective conversation is the digging into what is said to increase mutual understanding. If you layer enough good enough words together in a meaningful way, you will communicate well enough to build a relationship and move toward creating an outcome that works.
Eloquence is not required.
This post is part of the 2017 Blogging from A to Z Challenge.