The communication process really should be easy. You say something to another person. They hear it. They act in a way that is consistent with what you said. End of discussion.
And, it’s not quite that easy.
In reality, the process for spoken communication goes like this:
- You get a picture in your mind of what you want to communicate.
- You convert that picture into words, tone, and body language that describes the picture as you see it.
- The other person hears the words and notices your tone and body language.
- The other person converts the words, tone, and body language into a picture in their mind.
- The other person reacts to the picture as they see it.
The reason the real process doesn’t always go as smoothly as the ideal process lies in two key phrases: “as you see it” and “as they see it.”
The challenge in communication is that we often use words, tone and body language that mean one thing to us and something very different to another person. The difference might only be small, and still it is different. As the differences get bigger they can cause major miscommunications that result in wasted time, effort, and energy. In high-stakes or emotion-charged situations, even small differences can drive the conversation in a negative direction.
One way to bridge the differences between how you interpret a message and how another person interprets the same message is to include a feedback loop – you might say an understanding check – into your communications strategies.
As I wrote before, I am not a big fan of silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all communication techniques. I think you need to consider the whole situation before you apply any specific technique or tactic.
At the same time, I think there are some phrases and approaches you can add to your repertoire in preparation for high-stakes or emotionally-charged situations so that you can respond better when you are under pressure.
The communication feedback loop is one approach that I recommend in my private coaching sessions and in the communication workshops that I lead. In my last post, I wrote about the feedback loop in terms of how to apply it to make sure that you understand others more clearly. Today, I’m offering the other side of the communication feedback loop – checking the other person’s understanding of what you said.
In many respects, this side of the feedback loop is a bit more delicate than repeating back what you heard. In this case, you are going to ask the other person to tell you what message they received from your communication effort. Done poorly, asking the other person what they heard can come across as condescending or aggressive. So, you have to work extra hard to add more words, to soften your tone, and to choose non-threatening body language to make this work.
Here are six questions you can use to make sure you have communicated effectively:
- “Would you please say what you heard me say, so I can be sure that I was clear?”
- “So that I can make sure I communicated clearly, would you please tell me what you heard me say?”
- “I just want to make sure that I am clear. Would you please tell me what you understood me to say?”
- “I’d like to make sure I said that clearly. Please tell me what you heard?”
- “I’m not sure that I am conveying my idea the best way. What have you heard me say?”
- “I may have said that in a way that does not really communicate what I’m trying to say. If I did, I’d like a chance to rephrase it. What message did you hear?”
As I suggested in my post about the Five Questions to Make Sure that You Understand Others Correctly, I offer this list as a starting point for you to develop your own. As you develop your list, remember the underlying idea – if there was a miscommunication of any kind, you take the responsibility.
I’d love to see ideas you have for other ways to check understanding. Please add them in the comments section.