The primary barrier to mutual communication is a person’s natural tendency to approve or disapprove of what is being said by another person. Judging takes place because people tend to evaluate what they hear from their own personal point of view and reference. These evaluations short-circuit their ability to objectively think through, reframe, and analyze responses.
Leaders not only have to communicate their own thoughts, ideas, and messages clearly, but also are often responsible for facilitating better communication between groups and individuals with divergent points of view. Leaders must understand that communication is hampered when personal feelings and emotions are deeply involved. One rule of thumb always applies: The stronger the personal feelings of the involved parties, the less likely any mutual agreement will occur between the two.
This is because two ideas, two sets of personal feelings, and two sets of judgments exist completely disconnected from each other. When these are not laid aside, nothing remotely resembling communication occurs.
This is a serious consideration for leaders because they are often placed in situations where a complete lack of communication exists. They can find themselves in an environment where communication has completely broken down due to the highly-charged emotional content of both parties’ arguments. Without an understanding of the factors directly affecting communications, leaders will find themselves unable to facilitate useful exchanges and discussions; the communication that does take place will produce aggravation, conflict, and frustration for all parties.
Healthy communication occurs, and personal evaluations are avoided, when leaders are able to listen with a genuine sense of interest and understanding. This is a direct result of seeing an expressed idea or attitude from the other party’s point of view and developing a sense of how the other person feels. This allows leaders to achieve a personal frame of reference linked directly to an individual’s thoughts, perceptions, and interpretations. When a leader is able to develop this understanding, she is able to facilitate better communication, assuage the other person’s fears, and establish more realistic and harmonious relationships.
Leaders can effectively apply this technique in a difficult environment by requiring each party to clearly restate the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately to the speaker’s satisfaction. Only after this is accomplished does the second party state his viewpoint in response.
This should be done before anyone states her viewpoint or makes a response in a heated discussion, because it forces each party to pause and consider the other’s point of reference, helping the individual to identify what lies beneath the communicator’s thought process. This technique works because it immediately gives each party time to pause, think, analyze, evaluate, and remove the emotion from their statements.
This method requires an individual to achieve the other party’s frame of reference, so he can understand her thoughts and feelings well enough to summarize them accurately. This establishes real communication and guarantees that amicable solutions can be reached for two reasons. First, when understanding is achieved, it forces the other party to revise her own statements and thinking, to filter out emotions and subjectivity. Second, it reduces the differences between conflicting parties to reasonable disagreements that are both rational and understandable.
Leaders should know that complete understanding is often difficult to achieve because of the risks associated with challenging and altering one’s own thinking and views. Most are averse to this perceived threat.
Additionally, when emotions are at their peak, it is extremely difficult to achieve another’s frame of reference at the exact point when it is needed most to accurately interpret what is being said.
Leaders can easily overcome these barriers by assuming the role of neutral third party. In this capacity, they restate both individuals’ positions and points of reference to build clarity, introspection, and understanding. This is an effective method for neutralizing potential miscommunication problems through active personal interaction. When individuals realize they are being understood clearly and accurately, and feel comfortable because their views are being mirrored; consequently, their statements grow less exaggerated and defensive.
Taking the position of a neutral third party allows leaders to handle any insincerities, exaggerations, lies, and “false-fronts” that typically characterize communication breakdowns. This method leads to discovery of the truth and a realistic, objective appraisal of the barriers inhibiting two-way, interactive communication. The aim is to achieve “mutual” communication, focused on solving problems rather than attacking individual or group ideas, reasoning, or appraisals.
This article is an excerpt from Improving Communication in the Workplace (Majorium Business Press, 2011), which is part of the Pinpoint Leadership Skill Development Training Series.