Wednesday 18 September 2019

How emotion always wins in communications game

The Communicator

Gina London
Gina London

Gina London

One of the difficulties of writing a column on communications is that it's only the written word. You can't hear the sound of my voice if I were actually speaking to you and you can't see my facial expressions, or posture, or gestures which would accompany my voice.

It's a difficulty each of you must face when you write an email to a colleague, client or customer. I have written before about the importance of trying to add caring emotions in business writing.

So now, I want to examine how essential it is to take responsibility and ownership of your tone of voice and behaviour when you are out from behind your desk and devices and interacting with another person face-to-face.

Your tone and behaviour matter even more than your words.

Words are important, of course. But here's my case in point: A client of mine this past week was frustrated that, in his opinion, he was being continually "misunderstood" by people. While this person is fluent in English, it is not his first language. As such, he's convinced it's his accent or occasional mis-use of words that is causing misunderstandings.

He urged me to come up with a list of troublesome words he could practice to perfection. But since I have already been working with him for weeks, I suspected something else was the trouble.

I asked him to describe a recent example. He said he was presenting a new programme when an American colleague asked a question of clarification. "I knew she had no idea what I was talking about," he said to me as his voice rose in volume and pitch and intensity - clear signs of agitation.

"How did you respond to her?" I asked.

He paused and then loudly sighed. "I didn't respond to her at all. I just told someone else on my team to handle it. I quit speaking."

Oh my gosh. Any communication event is a two-way street. It's how you speak and how you listen. Maybe there was a misunderstood word. But my client didn't take the time to enquire. Instead, he reacted in way that actively demonstrated impatience and frustration. That disrespectful non-response was really a big response, wasn't it?

A couple of things happen here: The first is that my client, who truly does want to learn how to better communicate, feels defeated. In his mind, this interaction falls into the category of "I don't articulate well".

The second is that the person who asked the question probably doesn't feel much better either. The tension in the room causes the overall communications event to move from positive to negative. Remember, communications events move your relationships (to others and yourself) either forward or backward. They are rarely neutral.

The science that backs all this up comes from a variety of neurophysiological researchers, most recently, Dr Fiona Kerr, who spoke last week at the Enterprise Ireland and Cathay Pacific conference I emceed, which was aimed at helping Irish businesses scale to Asia.

According to her research, studies show a person's brain begins to shut down once that person feels they have been disrespected. After the event, the person only recalls what has gone wrong. So, imagine: My client has framed his problem as one of word-choice and enunciation. Therefore, when someone doesn't immediately "get him", he mentally throws his hands in the air and gives up.

But, as Kerr's research shows, the other person also throws their hands up. It's not the words that are producing the communication stumbling blocks. It's the emotion generated through the behaviour and tone of voice during the experience.

That's the root of the problem here.

Whether or not you speak perfect English, here's how to purposefully put others' emotions ahead of your own as you aim for communications success.

1 Renew your commitment to every day becoming more of an 'Intentional Communicator'.

Take responsibility and ownership for your communications as a gradual process of learning and applying. Remember, you are never not communicating and speaking is not the same as connecting. Your audience is perceiving everything at once: What you say, how you say it and how you behave.

2 Seek first to understand and then to be understood.

This comes from self-help guru Stephen Covey's best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It's so true and yet difficult to do. As humans, we are naturally self-centred. We live our lives largely inside our brains - thinking about and reacting to matters that mean most to us. Deliberately flipping that focus outward to what others may be thinking is a complete paradigm shift.

3 The most important thing is how you are received.

Worry less about what you say and more about what you imagine is being heard. This puts the strategy of considering your audience and listening and caring about them - before the strategy of audibly delivering any message.

4 Communications land on a timeline.

Every 'communications event' has a before and an after which impact the whole transaction. As I describe above, your audience remembers the whole event, not just a part.

You owe it to whomever is your audience, to positively engage with them throughout whatever meeting you are having.

As I encouraged my client, it doesn't matter if you are frustrated. Never let them see you sweat!

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  • Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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