(Co-authored by L.E.T. Master Trainer, Dr. Bill Stinnett)
How often have you met a new client or a new manager or colleague and showed an interest in them by asking questions about their life and listening to them and then realize that they don’t show the same interest in you? Do you find yourself wishing, as I have, that the conversation was over?
It’s a basic human need to want to communicate and to have meaningful interactions with your date, significant other, children, friends, co-workers. And yet it isn’t easy or comfortable to achieve real communication or a meaningful exchange at any time much less in the workplace. It is often a discussion point during leadership training. “How much time should we spend talking about non-work related issues? Shouldn’t those conversations occur after work?” Of course, most day-to-day communication while you are at work should be about the job. But, organizations are systems of relationships and the ability to develop and maintain those relationships is an important part of the work and one that leaders should take seriously.
Communication That Strengthens vs. Diminishes Us
Dialogue is the key to having real communication—the kind of communication in which both people feel a connection with the other and have a strong sense that a meaningful interaction is taking place–where there is a flow of meaning between them. To have dialogue means much more than two people talking to each other. Often in conversations, each person is trying to one-up the other or make their point or impress the other one with their knowledge or experience with little or no sensitivity to the other’s reaction. They talk past each other and one or both of them often feel frustrated or at least dissatisfied when it’s over. Or one person does most of the talking while the other listens passively, gradually losing interest.
Having real communication starts with the belief that it is possible to bring meaning to every encounter whether it’s during a meeting at work, on a date, or a phone conversation with a friend. Then comes the conscious decision to engage in such encounters with the intention of having a dialogue, “ I want to know how you think and feel and I also want to let you know how I think and feel so that we both will come away feeling energized and uplifted by our interaction.” In the workplace, this often leads to better teamwork and more productivitiy.
Such dialogue is possible only if we genuinely care about the other person at some level and have the capacity to show interest in their ideas, values and experiences. Equally as important are our desire, courage and ability to talk about our own views and beliefs. In short, real and meaningful communication requires each person to be both self-disclosing and empathic.
You can learn the communication skills you need to have this kind of meaningful dialogue. It offers you and your colleague or team member the ability to understand and empathize with another’s life experiences through Active Listening* (empathic listening) and the ability to express your own ideas, opinions, values and experiences in a way that lets others know you better and as a result allows you to know yourself better as well (I-Messages**).
What Gets In Your Way?
It is not always easy to be congruent, i.e. to have your words match what you are thinking or feeling. It often takes real courage to be authentic, to be who you really are because you expose yourself to the reaction of others. Being congruent means that you will be known as you really are and there can be fear attached to revealing yourself, fear that you will be judged, misunderstood, not taken seriously, ignored or rejected. These are very important considerations in the workplace, especially in an organization where there is a lot of fear and anxiety. And when others aren’t fully present or aren’t attentive and skilled listeners, this too inhibits our willingness and ability to express ourselves as we really are. You may feel really alone and it is hard to be the first to try something that feels so risky. That’s the bad news. The good news is that instead of feeling frustrated and upset because you didn’t speak up, there’s a feeling of well-being, satisfaction, peace, relief, even elation that comes when you have the courage to reveal yourself as you are, without pretense. Each time you do this, it contributes to your core strength–often in ways that aren’t instantly apparent. It makes you a better leader (team member, co-worker, colleague, etc.).
Empathic listening—this means giving the other person our full attention, acceptance and understanding. It means suspending our own thoughts and feelings for the time being and allowing the other person to express who they really are. It doesn’t mean we need to agree with them; it does mean we set our judgments aside and attempt to see the world as they see it. When we are able to be open to another’s experience, there is much less chance that they will feel defensive or on guard and a good chance that they will feel accepted and understood. Think of the feelings of relief, even catharsis that you have experienced when someone has truly understood you at a deep level.
Being Open is the Key
When we have the courage to be more open with others, true dialogue can occur. As a result, the relationship will flourish. In addition, just think about how much more interesting life would be if we all made a conscious attempt to engage with others in this way.
Thinking about relationships at work in this way may be new for many participants in leadership training but the outcome of learning new, more effective ways of communicating with our co-workers, team leaders, managers, colleagues, etc. can produce very good results, not only better relationships but better performance. In short, people work harder, with more energy and commitment when they feel they are a part of an organization they care about and one that cares about them. Good dialogue is the starting point for creating that kind of workplace.