This past weekend, I had the privilege of facilitating a family retreat in Northern California. I have been working with this family for a couple of years. As a result, we have done some previous communication training together on foundational issues of listening and understanding how your personality styles impact communicating with others.
So they were ready to work on some additional skills to utilize in building relationships with others. One skill set we worked on this weekend was related to ways you can assist the person with whom you are talking to better understand you.
Providing the context of your thoughts was one action we practiced. What I have found is that when we give each other the context of our thoughts â€“ that is, the reason or purpose of our sharing — this greatly enhances othersâ€™ ability to understand us â€“ and to do so more quickly, as well. And obviously, if we share the context prior to the start of the discussion, this is most helpful (rather than waiting to see the quizzical look on their face showing that they have no idea what we are talking about.)
One of the problems in talking together with others, is that you know â€œwhere you are coming fromâ€, what you have been thinking about, and the purpose (in your mind) of the conversation. However, the other person often has no clue. So when you start talking, it can take the other person a while to figure out why you are sharing what you are and what you want from them in response.
So the more you can give them the context of the situation, the more likely they will understand you (with less effort on your part) and the less likely they will misinterpret what you are trying to say (and, possibly, they may be less defensive).
This approach is helpful in all types of relationships, but we will use family and personal relationship examples here. Letâ€™s look at six different contexts for communication (the list is not meant to be exhaustive.)
Different Contexts for Communication
1. Transferring information.
â€œI just want to share about my day â€¦â€ â€œI wanted to let you know that â€¦â€
The purpose is just that â€“ to share information with you that they would like you to know. There is no response needed or expected (except that you are listening.)
2. Connecting relationally.
â€œIâ€™d like to share what I have been thinking about ..â€
The goal of this type of communication is often the desire that I want you to know me better. I want you to understand me. In this situation, a response is expected â€“ that you demonstrate understanding by active listening (in some cases, paraphrasing what you have heard me say.)
3. Getting feedback.
Iâ€™d like your input on something â€¦â€ â€œAm I thinking clearly on this? â€¦â€
There are times when we want input from others on how we are thinking and behaving. It is often helpful to get honest feedback from a friend or family member. It is critical in this situation to make sure you understand the core issue before responding. Ask clarifying questions. â€œSo are you concerned about â€¦ or is â€¦ the issue?â€ Then you are ready to share your observations.
4. Asking for advice.
â€œI have a dilemma â€¦ What do you think I should do?â€
The typical response (giving advice immediately) usually leads to problems. Rather, it is often best to gather additional information needed before responding. First, make sure you understand the situation and what part of it is of concern to them. Then ask who else they have gotten input from and what it was (or what have they already tried). This keeps your advice from getting â€œshot downâ€ (â€œOh, I already tried that and it didnâ€™t work.â€)
5. Making a request / Solving a Problem.
â€œI was wondering if you wouldâ€¦â€ â€œLast night, xyz happened. Could you â€¦?
Again, it is best to clarify exactly what is desired and the goal to be achieved first (even before agreeing to help). Then define the expectations regarding responsibility and timing (who is to do what? by when?). Finally, develop an action plan together and make sure it will accomplish the desired goal.
ASIDE: There are two common problems in communication about requests. First, a number of people make indirect requests â€“ they hint at what they want, rather than asking directly. Secondly, many guys interpret almost any sharing by another as a request for help or that they should â€œsolve the problemâ€. This is frustrating for many wives (guys, reread numbers 1 & 2 above).
6. Addressing issues in your relationship.
â€œIâ€™m feeling _____ with you because _____.â€
Letâ€™s face it, this type of scenario usually accompanies a â€œnegativeâ€ feeling (hurt, angry, frustrated), and it is the type of interaction most men dread with their wives (men rarely have this type of interaction with other guys.) So, for women, my advice is: try to have as many other types of interactions as possible, and use this interaction sparingly. And for guys, try not to get defensive. Listen. Try to understand the other personâ€™s perspective. And donâ€™t make excuses â€“ it wonâ€™t help (and probably isnâ€™t true), and wonâ€™t lead the discussion anywhere good. The best response is to first make sure you understand both the feeling and the reason for the feeling. Then ask: â€œWhat would you like from me?â€ Then, if possible, agree to some action step in response.
So, give it a try. See if providing a little introduction or context before your interactions with others helps smooth them out and makes the communication process go better. Or if you have some other suggestions, Iâ€™d love to hear those as well.