As a practitioner and coach of NLP, I regularly experience people reaching out to me to work through a problem. While these issues range anywhere from a relational vendetta to a self-discovery impasse, roughly 90 percent of these hang-ups are centered around ineffective communication.
Now, I in no way claim to be an expert in this department. In fact, the more I dissect what I know to be true about communication, the more I realize I’m aloof to most of it. However, amongst the sea of pain and heartache, some common themes arose from the language and perceptions being opted for. These patterns clearly weren’t doing anyone any favors in the arenas of connection and influence and moreover, created a vague feeling of —and I use this term loosely — helplessness.
This isn’t exactly a surprise, as sharing and receiving ideas isn’t exactly our strong suit. Social issues, divorces, and violence can all be traced back to some type of breakdown in communication. Much of the world succumbs to a baseline of ineffective dialogue and we need an effective solution.
After just about every meaningful relationship in my life bit the dust, I woke up to a few painstakingly common denominators that were consistently tarnishing the effect I was having on people. Have a peek behind the curtain.
Here are four critical communication distinctions that will make an immediate impact with the people in your life:
1. Resist the urge to say “you”
Because of our overwhelming desire to be right — and therefore protected — we love sharing where the other person failed to meet our expectations. It’s common practice to pepper the phrases “you did this” or “you said that” throughout our explanation, as we want to reinforce how the other person made us feel.
This gets us absolutely nowhere and transforms the pre-existing chain-link fence into castle walls. By renouncing the use of “you”, the person’s nerves are calmed as the spotlight has been taken off of them—dissipating the feeling of being put on trial. The entire experience is now under consideration and they can sense you’ll be a little more objective in your drawing of conclusions.
“Communication- the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.” – Paul J. Meyer
2. Use “what” instead of “why”
Questions can be the most powerful gateway to understanding what’s happening in another person’s world. However, we often jump the gun when it comes to dealing with communication breakdowns.
“Why” possesses far too much depth as an inquiry, often careening someone off an emotional cliff. It pierces the conscious mind and it typically elicits a sharp comment or cutting remark in response, capping a lid on the potential for forward momentum in the conversation. Most people would prefer walking into the ocean, as opposed to being dropped into shark-infested waters.
“What” is much more of a surface-level inquisition. It treads lightly and doesn’t require the other person to dig as deep in their explanation. “Why” confronts the individual, while “what” confronts the situation.
3. Resist over-identifying with what’s being said
Expecting someone else to base their every move around your feelings is a recipe for disaster. No one has a complete picture of reality but our continual sole reliance on our own subjective view robs us of being quality contributors to others — most notably, in our closest relationships.
It’s the difference between the spouse who yells and screams at their partner for coming home late versus the one that greets their partner with genuine concern and worry for their well-being. One is a focus on the short-term (the emotions that arose from the situation), while the other is a response to the long-term and what’s most important (the health of the individual).
Taking the “all things considered” approach will do you far more good than simply concerning yourself with your own feelings. After all, they aren’t always valid. Stop yourself from the knee-jerk reactions whenever curveballs get thrown your way and instead, take a look at the score, the inning, how many outs, and the men on base— then you can take a swing.
“Communication must be HOT. That’s Honest, Open, and Two-way.” – Dan Oswald
4. Understand that how you perceive the conversation is entirely one-dimensional
Words, tone, and body language can play serious tricks on us sometimes. Consider that it’s impossible to know the truth within a conversation, as the “truth” is contingent upon whose point of view you’re basing it off of.
When communication reaches a stopping point, it’s usually a result of neither party being willing to waver on their indifferences. Attachment and pride get in the way in many areas of life and communication is no exception. To truly understand another person and appreciate where they’re coming from, you must give up your point of view.
It allows you to be a clear space for their ideas and input—free from judgment or cynicism. You can literally create freedom for another human being simply by opting to remain stoic and allow them to try on their own opinion, instead of having to force it down someone else’s combative throat.
This doesn’t mean you agree with them or validate what they’re saying. It’s simply a matter of making an impact— people will not move for someone they don’t feel heard by. Giving up your position not only allows room to understand another person, it creates freedom to roam the meadow of new ideas. It shows you that you’re okay despite temporarily being of no position or stance.
Our ego thinks we can’t survive without a strong opinion etched firmly within our psyche. It’s up to you to show yourself that you don’t have to be held hostage to that opinion— for you can let go of it at any moment in lieu of what really makes the difference for people.
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Why Do We Have An Unconscious Bias and How Can We Manage It?
When I hear someone using my name once in a while throughout the conversation we are having, I cannot stop myself thinking “this person must have read Dale Carnegie’s books or must have been influenced by someone who read them…” Have you just recalled a similar moment and it felt nice?
As Dale Carnegie famously said, “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and the most important sound in any language”. Why did Dale Carnegie highlight the importance of an individual’s name to that person in his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book published in 1936?
Each and every one of us wants to feel special and unique. I guess he recommends using the person’s name in the conversation because that is one of the easiest ways to grab that person’s attention so that we can enhance the chances of getting our point across. However, I am more interested in this from the other side; hearing our names directly addresses our individuality, our need or desire to feel special and unique.
Let’s park this one for now and we will come back.
Categorization is essential to our survival
There is countless scientific research telling us about how our brains recognize similarities and put things into categories, which has been crucial to our survival in evolution and still helps us with a lot of things from learning new things to coping with the continuous influx of massive amounts of information through our senses.
The continuous influx of information is mostly handled by our subconscious mind rather than conscious. It is estimated that our brains receive about 11 million bits of information every second through our senses, of which only 40-50 bits can be processed by our conscious mind. We process more information than we are aware of. The magic here is the subconscious mind.
An example is when you are at a very loud party where you hear a lot of words flying around without you recognizing each one of them, then suddenly, you immediately catch it when you hear your name. Your subconscious had been processing all of those words, without your awareness, but informed your conscious mind when your name was out there because it was relevant to you.
In order to most effectively process this much information and inform the conscious mind with only the relevant ones, our subconscious employs categorization as one of its strategies.
When our ancestors encountered some deadly predators in the African savanna, their subconscious prompted their conscious mind to immediately fight or flight by categorizing the information gathered through their senses into “predator / life threat / take action”. Most probably we are not descendants of the ones that were frozen rather than fighting or flighting!
Although it is a completely different situation, the same strategy applied in remembering lists. Let’s look at the below two lists.
- lion, eagle, shark, leopard, hawk, whale, panther, falcon and dolphin
- lion, leopard, panther, eagle, hawk, falcon, shark, whale and dolphin
The second list is easy to remember because it is reordered into relevant groups even though the content of the both lists are identical.
Subconsciousness is the magic and categorization is one of its key strategies. It is essential to our survival, learning new skills and processing information as well as bringing back the information we had processed and stored.
This amazing skill has its drawbacks
As a result of our brains’ categorization strategy, we also categorize people, especially if we don’t know them as well as our closest ones.
Imagine I am sitting at the table next to yours while you are having your favorite coffee and working on your computer or reading your novel at your neighborhood coffee shop. I stand up, very calmly grab your bag, and start walking away. Your reaction might be quite different depending on my outfit. It could be much more vocal and harsh if I have a dirty T-Shirt and a pair of torn jeans on. However, if I have some navy colored, 3-piece suit and well-pressed white button up shirt on, you might even say something like “Excuse me, you might have picked up my bag by mistake”. (There is an experiment done by social psychologists which reported similar results)
Similarly, I would not be surprised to hear that my co-worker’s spouse is very skilled and knowledgeable in English grammar and literature because he is an English teacher. However, I would not expect it from my co-worker herself because she is an outstanding chemical engineer.
This is defined as unconscious bias or stereotyping, as a result of our subconscious brain’s categorization strategy. The outfit I have at the coffee shop impacts your response to my action, because it puts me into a different category in your mind depending on my outfit. My co-worker’s and her spouse’s backgrounds make me put them into different categories, which might mislead me sometimes.
Just like we categorize things, it is very natural that we categorize people.
The key question here for me is; how do we truly treat people as individuals so that they feel unique, just like as they would want, while we know that our brains categorize people?
We can overcome unconscious bias
Leonard Mlodinow, in his enlightening book “Subliminal”, suggests that “if we are aware of our bias and motivated to overcome it, we can.” That doesn’t mean that we need to fight our brain’s categorization strategy. We just need to employ our conscious mind more when we are working or dealing with individuals.
Our unconscious bias might tell us scientists are bunch of technical nerds who cannot understand abstract concepts that marketers are talking about or it might say that marketers are some daydreamers who need to be grounded by scientists to the real world all the time. I am an engineer and I love thinking in abstract terms and I worked with quite a lot of marketers who thought primarily in factual and concrete terms.
Spending some effort to learn more about individuals will help overcome unconscious bias. Gathering more information and qualities about them will make it easier for us to treat them as individuals rather than a member of the category we put them in our minds.
The moral of the story here is to recognize the fact that our brains do categorize, and it is essential; but also, to recognize that every individual wants to feel unique. When we appreciate these two and keep reminding them to ourselves, we are one step closer to figuring out our own way to overcome unconscious bias and treat people more like individuals.
What was the most interesting part of this article for you? Share your thoughts below!
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