Back in my corporate years, I engaged in many forms of communication—delivering presentations, running meetings, developing proposals, sending updates and other business writing. At the time, I thought I was a competent communicator. Yet oftentimes, I became embroiled in conflicts and disagreements that went badly for me. Usually, I believed it was the other people who were in the wrong.
It wasn’t until I studied communication theory and power dynamics in my marriage and family therapy training, and subsequently served as a therapist, coach and writer, that I realized how much of the success of our communication is driven by our own internal beliefs and intentions, which are often subconscious. I saw that the more we can manage our emotions, ego and intentions, and gain awareness of exactly what we are trying to communicate, the stronger our relationships will be.
This increased awareness helps us build important bridges and positive relationships with the people who matter most to us, including our bosses, leaders, colleagues, friends and loved ones.
From my studies in psychotherapy and communication, there are three critical concepts that have helped me tremendously in forging stronger bonds.
Every word you communicate will either work to support your goals and engage effectively with your audience or do the opposite —put a wedge between you that prevents understanding and connection.
Your listener will be much more inclined to let in what you’re saying and consider your ideas and views if you speak from respect and compassion in your heart rather than judgment, disdain and criticism.
To truly connect with your listener, you need to “meet them where they are.” It’s critical to know your audience before communicating, and do your best to match their style, vocabulary and cadence so they can feel heard and validated.
Drawing on helpful communication principles, below are three key ways to hone your communication so that you can engage, inspire and connect powerfully with others, and achieve the important outcomes that matter to you.
The three ways to hone your communication to build better relationships are:
1. Listen with a willingness to be changed by what you hear.
Chad Littlefield, the cofounder of We!, creator of We! Connect Cards and a global expert on asking questions that build trust and connection in teams, recently shared a quote that I loved from actor and communications trainer Alan Alda on my Finding Brave podcast.
“The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you . When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues.”
If we apply this principle to the conversations we’re having today—in the workplace, at the water cooler, in our meetings and social gatherings or during our family dinners, we’ll see clearly that most of us are not really listening at all, but simply (and impatiently) waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can put forth our own views.
And most of our ideas are impervious to any type of change or fluidness. They’re set in stone based on our biases and values. I’m certainly guilty of this as well, but I’ve learned to stop myself in my tracks when I sense that I’m simply pretending to listen. This happened to me just last night, in fact, in a conversation I was having with a friend who holds very different political views. As I found myself getting upset at his views, I stopped and asked myself: “What is my intention here? Am I open to being impacted by what he’s saying? Am I listening with the intent to learn and connect, or to pontificate and inform?”
Once I opened myself to listening with the willingness to be changed, the conversation took a very different, more positive turn. That doesn’t mean that a simple conversation with change your hard-held beliefs, but it does mean that you are open to feeling more respect and kindness toward the person who is sharing very different views.
As Littlefield explained, when we can listen with more curiosity, respect and fluidity, and bring to our communication the intention to build connection, then our bonds will grow.
2. Before you speak forcefully about something, frame it with a value statement.
In a powerful interview on this blog with the “Behavioral Science Guys” David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, they shared their research that explored gender bias as it relates to women vs. men speaking up forcefully and assertively. Their research revealed a clear and irrefutable bias against women who are forceful and assertive, compared with forceful men. The research showed that women’s perceived competency drops 35% and their perceived value drops $15,088 when they’re being deemed as forceful. Compare that to the drop in forceful men’s perceived competence (22%) and perceived value ($6,547) and we see a clear gender bias.
As part of the study, Grenny and Maxfield also conducted an experiment to see if using a brief, framing statement (that allowed the speakers to explain their intent before sharing their content and demonstrate that they had not lost control of their temper of emotions) could reduce social and emotional backlash.
This experiment showed that these brief statements could indeed reduce the backlash by as much as 27% – enabling both women and men to more consciously speak their minds to minimize backlash in the workplace.
The most potent was a value statement. Before their forceful comments, the actors shared something like this, “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” This statement reveals control, but also turns the forcefulness into a virtue. Now the strong emotion demonstrates the actor’s commitment to honesty and integrity. This frame reduced the backlash by 16%.
The takeaway here is that if you want to be heard, and build a strong connection with your listeners, consider offering a value framing statement that offers a core value (honesty, integrity, clarity, transparency, respect, etc.) to frame your words, allowing you to be heard in a way that will make a more positive impact.
3. Meet the listener where they are and speak from an understanding of their needs and mindset.
Thirdly, in my work as a coach and former therapist (and this relates to managing and leading as well), I’ve seen that in order to forge a bond of respect and trust, my clients have to feel that I understand them. If I come from a place of judging or distancing myself, I’ll lose them. But if I demonstrate that I “get them” at a fundamental level and can appreciate their frame of reference and have empathy for what they are going through, the bond between us grows. If I fail to achieve that sense of trust, the entire relationship falters.
In building stronger relationships, we need to remember that all humans have a deep, primal need to be heard, understood and validated. The more we can satisfy that need in communication, the stronger our relationships will become.
Overall, to build stronger relationships, we need to create a safe, trusting space by doing this:
Reflect back the essence of what you’re hearing by sharing validating statements that encapsulate the key emotions and experiences of the speaker. To a friend who’s sharing how awful it is to see his father suffer from dementia, you might say, “Wow, Tim, I hear how challenging it is for you right now to be dealing with the decline of your beloved dad, and how hard it is to figure out the right next step.”
This helps your listener feel that you understand at a deep level what he’s going through.
Don’t ask “why.”
Rather than asking “why?” when you’re trying to understand someone’s motivation or thinking, ask “how” and “what” questions. “Why” immediately puts the listener on the defensive and makes them feel they need to justify what they’re feeling and saying.
For example, imagine you’re wanting to understand your employee’s rationale for bringing up a random research statistic in a meeting that doesn’t seem to fit the project at hand. Instead of saying “Why are you bringing that up?” or “Why is that important for us to consider?” which sounds like a challenge, you might say this: “That’s an interesting finding. How should we look at that in relation to the project we’re working on?”
Openly share your commitment to maintaining a strong relationship.
Finally, when you’re at a true impasse with a colleague or friend but don’t want to sever the relationship, you have several options including sharing your anger or disbelief at what they’ve done, and/or expressing your commitment to keeping the relationship in tact but asking for a way to bridge your differences.
Telling the other party that, no matter how far apart you are today, you’re committed to not letting this relationship go, will help generate the motivation on their part to do what’s necessary to work it out.
For instance, in a case where your parent is furious at you for something you said that they perceive was hurtful (but you feel wronged by that judgment), you can say something like, “Mom, I can see how from your perspective what I said might have felt hurtful. That truly wasn’t my intent, and I’m sorry about that. Is there a way we can both try to understand each other’s feelings and move forward?”
In the end, the more you can communicate a deep understanding of your listeners’ viewpoints, and the more respect, compassion and care you can hold in your heart in terms of how you relate to others, the stronger and more satisfying your relationships will become.
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