Have you ever tried to get a child to do your bidding? If so, then you know just how tricky communication can be. When I think about effective communication, I can't help but recall a scene from The Cosby Show where Bill Cosby tells his young daughters to knock before they enter his bedroom and say what it is. So the two girls step back outside his bedroom, knock and yell, "What it is!"
The fallacy is that communication is ever not tricky. The reality is we all have some bad communication habits and nothing quite highlights them like children or for that matter colleagues or employees.
Interestingly, some of the very best communication advice out there comes in the form of parenting books. My case in point: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Substitute "people" for the word "kids" and Faber and Mazlish have a super useful communication tool for leaders.
The authors provide a number of tips and exercises for adopting more empathetic and therefore effective communication skills. Perhaps the most important chapter is the one entitled helping children deal with their feelings. The chapter illustrates how good we are at shutting down communication - so much so that we often don't realize we're doing it. Statements like "You're over-reacting" or "You know what you should do ... " only serve to deny a person's feelings and stop the flow of communication. And of course, if through our statements we prevent people from expressing what they need to, households suffer and so do companies.
What advice do Faber and Mazlish offer as a starting point?
First, be present in the conversation (blackberry down, eyes on your partner). Second, acknowledge the feelings of your colleague with a simple "Oh," or "I see." There is really nothing more necessary and those simple listening indications actually encourage more talking. Finally, give the feelings expressed a name. For example, "That sounds frustrating!"
It sounds simple, but can be incredibly difficult in practice. There's always the urge to jump in with a solution or a defense, but as the authors note, "the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It's not part of our 'mother tongue.' Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods."
To given Alicia a listen, check out an interview she recently did with NCWIT.