Communication is hard! We all have relationships in which we communicate with ease, and others in which we feel like we’re “walking on eggshells” – always careful with our words, trying not to offend or create a defensive response. It’s natural to have different levels of communication chemistry with different personalities and there’s no way to fully level the playing field. Yet, it’s also possible to reduce the likelihood of defensiveness and to increase our success when we communicate with just about anyone, anywhere. In today’s solo episode on the TalentGrow Show, I share six principles that can help you communicate more effectively in any situation. Take a listen now and share with those who could also benefit!
What you'll learn:
- Effective communication principle 1: Start with safety and reduce threat.
- Effective communication principle 2: Built trust.
- Effective communication principle 3: Listen to understand.
- Effective communication principle 4: Ask good questions.
- Effective communication principle 5: Create verbal and non-verbal congruence.
- Effective communication principle 6: Stay low on the Ladder of Inference.
As with all my podcast episodes, the full transcript is below for your reading pleasure and convenience!
- Here's my original blog post about the six principles of effective communication, which formed the basis for this podcast episodes.
- As promised, here are additional resources mentioned in the show:
- How to minimize the threat response
- More on how to build trust
- How actor Alan Alda described good listening (starting at minute 5:44 on the linked video). You might also enjoy this vlog I made about listening
- How to ensure you're congruent in your verbal and non-verbal communication
- Dr. Albert Mehrabian's research into non-verbal communication
- The Ladder of Inference
- What was your biggest ‘A-ha’? Which of these are you going to work on first? And if you have tried any of these principles, what were your results? Comment below!
- Share this if you found it valuable. I find that a LOT of people need advice for effective communication. Let’s help more people, together!
- Ask me a question or tell me a topic that you would like me to cover in a future episode of the TalentGrow Show. I make this podcast to serve you – so please don’t be shy!
About Halelly Azulay
Have we met? I'm Halelly Azulay. I'm an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in leadership, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. I am the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. My books, workshops and retreats build on my 20+ years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.
I am the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company focused on developing leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.
People hire me to speak at conferences and meetings and to facilitate leadership workshops, but what I love most is to help fast growing organizations create a leadership development strategy and approach.
I'm a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. I was described as a “Leadership Development Guru” by TD Magazine. I blog, publish a leadership podcast (um, hello?!), and have a popular free weekly subscription newsletter – so you should definitely sign up at www.tinyurl.com/talentgrow.
Episode 102 solo
Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.
Halelly: Welcome back TalentGrowers. This is a solo episode of the TalentGrow Show, and I am Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow. On solo episodes I riff about some topic that is related to my expertise, which is leadership, communication, emotional intelligence and networking, and usually it is like a mini training session, a topic that might be a part of a workshop or a speaking presentation from the work that I do around the country and around the globe, where I try to convey how to be a better communicator, how to be the kind of leader that people actually want to follow, how to network more authentically without the ick factor, and how to communicate with emotional intelligence.
So today’s topic is the six principles of effective communication. If you have been a follower of my blog, then you might remember this is one of my blog posts. In fact, when I look at website traffic that comes from Google searches, this is the blog post that has the most visits, by far, of any page of my website. So it made me think, hey, this must be a topic that a lot of people find interesting, that would find beneficial to learn more about, and since some people love to listen and some people love to read, I figured why not create an audio version of the same post. So, this is a very similar content to the one that’s in that blog post and we will link to it in the show notes so that you can refer to it and share it. Ready? Here we go.
We all have relationships in which we communicate with ease, and we all have relationships in which we feel like we’re walking on eggshells, like we’re always having to choose our words carefully, we want to try not to offend the person or make them become defensive. It’s very natural for us to have to communicate in a very different way with different people. We have different chemistry with them. They have different personality types. So there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all in terms of how to communicate effectively and there’s really never any way for us to fully level the playing field. But, it’s also possible to reduce the likelihood of defensiveness and to increase our success when we communicate with just about anyone, anywhere. In my work, I help people communicate better and it is never really something that is simple enough to reduce to the three this or the six that. But, here are six principles that I do think are key to help you communicate more effectively. They are, in no particular order, I will tell you what the six are and then we’ll dive into each of them a little bit. Start with safety. Two, build trust. Three, listen to understand. Four, ask good questions. Five, create congruence, and six, stay low on the ladder of influence.
Let’s get started with number one, which is start with safety. That means you want to reduce threat. There’s tons of information out there that says that in our brain, the number one function is first to keep us alive, and that means that our brain is always scanning information that comes in, first from the perspective of is this a threat? Is this something that’s going to hinder my ability to keep me alive? To keep my safe? When we talk about communication, that is something that is usually not going to be a threat to physical safety, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what’s amazing and that’s coming out of the world of neuroscience and cognitive science is the information that shows that in our brain, social safety is held in high regard pretty equal to that of physical safety. In other words, we can become triggered into a very defensive fight or flight kind of mode when we feel like our social standing, our social status, is endangered or threatened. When we communicate with others, one of the reasons we often find ourselves walking on eggshells is because we have a sense that something that we’re saying is triggering the other person’s safety threat mechanism and reaction. They go into fight or flight mode, which pretty much bypasses rational thinking. Or, at least hinders their ability to get back to rational thinking. We can always come back to rational thinking, in my opinion. When we get into that kind of fight or flight mode, we get very fidgety, our field of view narrows, our working memory gets reduced, we have fewer new insights, we become more pessimistic in our assumption about the other person’s behavior and what it means toward us. We believe that it’s for the worst. And when we are in that mode, it’s really not a very good way to have a wonderful, productive conversation.
If you’ve threatened the other person, even unintentionally, or even if they rationally would agree that it’s not a threat, if you’ve caused their brain to go into that fight or flight mode, that reactionary threat response mode, then you’ve already set yourself up for this communication to not go as well as you would have hoped. This is why I say start with safety. I’m going to link to an article that I have about how to reduce the threat response in the show notes.
The second principle is that you need to build trust. I know it sounds really simple – build trust – but as we all know, trust is very hard to build. It seems like a very enigmatic, mysterious thing. How do we create trust with other people? The higher the level of trust between two people, the higher the likelihood that the conversation between two people will be productive and effective. The author Keith Ferrazzi describes three types of trust, and I like to refer to this because I think it’s easy to remember. There’s swift trust, which is giving people the benefit of the doubt right away, even if we don’t have any particular reason to trust them. But we also don’t have any particular to distrust them. Most of us are willing to give the benefit of the doubt, although some people have either naturally a tendency to be distrustful at first, or maybe their life has taught them to avoid trusting people without any evidence. Most people will be able to give you this kind of swift trust, but that’s not going to be long lasting. It needs to be replaced with the two other kinds of trust, which are much more long lasting, and usually built on evidence.
Those are interpersonal trust and task-based trust. So interpersonal trust is built over time through social interactions, through chitchat, through small talk, through finding out things about what the person likes and dislikes. Something about their personal life, their hobbies, their fears, their loves, eating with them, having a drink with them – coffee or whatever, breaking bread as you will – all of those things can help build interpersonal trust, and so the more that we can do that over time, the more that we can sustain our ability to communicate more effectively with a person because there’s less of the likelihood that they will feel a lack of safety because they trust us.
The third kind of trust is task-based trust. Task-based trust is basically the kind of trust that you build by creating repeated patterns that show us as reliable, consistent, responsive, responsible. Doing what you said you’ll do, coming through on your commitments, being a person of your word makes you more trustworthy to the others. That’s a type of trust that is built through demonstration, through showing your ability to come through on promises. Again, it takes time but we can always find ways to build that trust up because we can always make even micro-promises, small promises that we can then deliver on. Even something as simple as, “I’ll call you on Friday,” and then you call on Friday, or, “I promise I won’t do that,” and then not doing it. Or, “I’ll make sure that I introduce you to so-and-so,” and coming through and doing it. Whatever it is that you do, always try to create patterns of reliability and consistency, because that’s going to help you develop trust. So those are three types of trust. I hope that you found that useful and I will definitely link to more trust resources in the show notes.
We’ve covered two of the six. Now we’re ready to talk about number three, which is listen to understand. One of my favorite stories to tell here is that I listened to an interview, and I’ll link to it, with the actor Alan Alda. He was in the 70’s TV smash hit MASH. He was also in a lot of movies, and a well-respected actor. He was interviewed about what good acting is, and he said that he always heard that good acting is good listening, but actually for a good part of his career he had no idea what that meant. Then he says, “I’ve figured it out.” Of course the interviewer follows up and says, “All right, if good acting is good listening, what is good listening?” And he says, “Good listening is listening with the willingness to be changed.” Well, I think that is so deep, so profound. The willingness to be changed. So often we listen to the other person for our turn to talk. We listen to the other person so we can pick up pointers about why they’re an idiot, or we listen while actually pretending to listen, and in our mind we’re thinking about something else or making a checklist for things we have to remember to do later. If we could listen better, and especially if we could listen to try to really understand the other person’s perspective, and maybe even have that openness to change our mind, to see that person as having it the right way and us having it the wrong way – I’m not saying you should assume you’re wrong. I’m not saying you don’t have the right to retain your perception of your perspective being the better one. But if you give yourself the chance to learn and understand and maybe even be changed by the other person, the level of listening and the way in which you will be seen as listening by the other person will create a much better communication, a much more effective communication. There’s not even a doubt that this will create safety and trust in the other person. There is nothing to be lost by that, and I hope that you will try it.
Number four, the principle of effective communication for is ask good questions. Now, questions are tools. There isn’t an inherently right or wrong question, an inherently good or bad type of question. There are four general question types – open-ended questions, close-ended questions, probing questions and leading questions. But, questions, like tools, are appropriate sometimes and inappropriate in others. Just like you wouldn’t say, “Oh, a hammer is the best tool.” A hammer is great if you’re trying to hang up the picture, but a hammer is not the best tool if you’re trying to pull a screw out of the wall. You have to use questions meaningfully, intentionally, and productively, depending on the outcome that you’re trying to produce. Think about what is the need that you have, and then match the question to that need. Think about how to ask the right kind of question to yield the right kind of response. I do think that we have a tendency to think we’re asking open-ended questions, but in fact ask a close ended question, which is defined by a question that can be answered simply by a one word answer – yes, no, a number or something very short. Open ended questions, if you want to produce a more in-depth response, if you want to really get to the bottom of the other person’s perspective, if you really want them to elaborate on something, an open ended question can help you do that. Whereas a close ended question can help you get to a really finite, straightforward, informational kind of answer. My suggestion, in communication, especially when you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, is err on the side of asking more open ended questions, because open ended questions allow you to really understand the other person’s perceptive, rather than allow you to talk some more. There is no right kind of question, but there is the best questions for the need at hand, so be mindful and deliberate about the kinds of questions you ask.
Effective communication principle number five is creating congruence between the verbal and the nonverbal part of your message. I will link to more in-depth content about this on my blog, and the idea is that, especially when you’re communicating face-to-face, and let’s face it – if you have the kind of communication that you’re worried is going to go wrong, there’s probably a reason why you’re worried. Often because it’s not something that’s dry, fact-based, informational communication. Usually there is some relationship aspect to that communication. There’s some emotional layer to that communication. There’s some trust and safety level of information that you want to make sure you communicate the right way. And when you feel concerned about how to communicate all of that in the right kind of way, I will give you a tip. Writing it in an email or in a text message is probably the worst way to send that communication. You’re missing the opportunity for the richness of the nonverbal part of the communication and for the other person to really understand you in the way that you intended by also being able to read your nonverbal communication in addition to the verbal words-only communication. I suggest highly that for important communication, communication that you feel might go wrong, that you really be biased toward create a face-to-face opportunity as much as possible. Today we have video conferencing technology, so it actually doesn’t even require you to be in the same geographic location. We can put in some kind of Skype call, a Google hangout, Zoom, any kind of video conferencing call or even FaceTime can help you put in the face and voice into the words. Because we need to make sure that we have congruence between the verbal message and the nonverbal message.
Imagine a situation where I say something like, “I’m not angry!” You can’t even see me, but can you imagine what I look like when I say that? You can certainly hear in my voice that there is something that’s incongruent between what the words are, the verbal message, which was simply I’m not angry, and the nonverbal message. In my voice, you probably heard very high pitch, a very loud and kind of abrupt sound with a lot of intensity. And if you were to see me in person, what might you see? You probably would see that I furrowed my brows, you probably would see that I’m not smiling. I’m probably hunching my shoulders, I’m probably crossing my arms. These are all part of the message that would say, “Wait a minute. She does look angry. She said I’m not angry, but she looks like she is.” Your brain, since it’s trying to figure out what’s true, your brain is like, “Look, we can’t have two opposite things be true at the same time. It’s impossible.
You can’t be both not angry and angry, and when your brain has to choose what’s the truth because it needs to protect you to save you, it’s going to go with the nonverbal messages being the truth, if it’s incongruent with the verbal message. There are studies that were started by Dr. Albert Mehrabian back in the 1970s, and actually replicated over and over and also misconstrued over and over, misrepresented, which is a pet peeve of mine, that say that when there is an emotional layer to the communication, and when the nonverbal and the verbal seem to be incongruent, mismatched, that people overall tend to err on the side of trusting the nonverbal message as the truth, as the reliable message, when it’s in conflict with the verbal message. Creating congruence between the verbal and the nonverbal part of your message, making sure that you’re saying something but you also look like you mean it, is something that is going to help you make more effective communication. And like I said, being able to show your facial expression, your body, and hearing your voice and understanding the words you’re saying, all of that put together in a coherent, congruent package is what’s going to help you create a much more successful communication than if it was incongruent.
We’ve covered five of the six, are you ready for number six? Number six might not make sense to you until I explain it, but stay low on the ladder of inference. And again, I have more resources about this and I link to them in the show notes, but in every interaction, there is a ladder of inference that’s operating in the background. This is a concept that was originated by Chris Argyris, and then popularized by Peter Senge, and what this means is that we’re reading the data, reading the information that comes across in the communication. But our brain actually starts to try to figure out its meaning. When our brain is taking the information, the actual facts, the words that were said, the facial expressions we might have seen, our brain goes to work to put that together with lots of other extraneous information that’s stored in our brain from past experiences, from previous communications with this person, from other times we communicated with someone that had a similar kind of wording or a similar situation or a similar role and it comes into our worldview, it comes into our philosophy of life, religious upbringing perhaps, cultural norms that we’ve been brought up with – all of those things come in to help us interpret the information.
Here is where we can begin an infinite number of ways in which each person in the conversation could be interpreting the very same information in very different ways. Communication is really very difficult, because if we’re trying to convey meaning to someone, we’re trying to help them understand what we think, what we know, to convey that information in a way that is read by them in a way that matches that we meant is actually pretty hard. When we convey information, the tendency, or when we’re reading the other person, the tendency we have might be to go up that ladder of inference. In other words, to take the information we’re seeing and to add to it all kinds of meanings that we invent in our head to fit the facts that we’ve collected and to kind of infuse meaning into it. This is very risky and dangerous because we could be taking it into the very wrong kind of interpretation. Based on that interpretation, we make some assumptions, we adopt beliefs about the person, about the situation, good, bad, right, wrong, moral, immoral, whatever, and now we actually take action. Like we say something, we don’t say something, we do something, we don’t do something, that is based on what they said but also how we interpreted it and the assumptions that we made and the beliefs that we held.
My caution to you is to stay low on the ladder of inference. What is meant by that is to try to base your actions, your decisions, more on facts and less on assumptions. More on actual evidence, like what do I actually know this person said, so that I don’t make assumptions that are unfounded and could potentially lead me to the wrong conclusion and to the wrong action and to the wrong judgment? Stay grounded in facts. Stay low on the ladder of inference. And try to gather as much actual evidence, or even sometimes dis-confirming evidence, like when you feel yourself starting to climb up that ladder of assumptions and saying to yourself, “Wait a minute? Do I actually know this is true or am I making assumptions about this person or the situation that are not founded in reality?”
For example, if I see someone and their arms are crossed, I could make an assumption that they are angry or that they’re unwelcoming. But it could be that they are just feeling very cold and chilled by the very low temperature on the air conditioning, and I could have made the wrong assumption about their intention if I didn’t check my facts, if I didn’t ask them more questions, if I wasn’t more curious to learn what’s truly going on rather than just basing my behaviors on my assumptions. That’s a simplistic example. Another example is someone walks in late to a meeting. I can assume that the person doesn’t care about the meeting, about me, about the project or that they’re irresponsible or that they’re not committed to the client. But it also could be because they had a flat tire and they’re so committed and so responsible that they walked all the way to the office and left their car on the highway because they knew it was so important to get here. Or because they had to help a sick member of their family and that’s why they were late, right? There could be other reasons why they are late that don’t support my assumption, that they’re lazy, that they’re irresponsible, that they’re not committed. Walking forward with that assumption, and making my decisions on how to interact with them and how to work with them based on an assumption that’s unfounded is very harmful. It’s harmful to our relationship, it’s definitely harmful to the communication.
So, stay grounded in fact. Be curious and ask more questions. Be observant and be careful of jumping forward with unfounded conclusions, assumptions, about people’s intentions and meaning so that you can have effective communication based on truth, based on facts, based on real things.
I’ve talked a bunch and I hope this has been helpful to you. I could talk about this for days and days and never get through half of it because it really is complex. Communication is complex, but I hope that this has given you some food for thought. Some things that actually are actionable, that you can put into effect right away to make your communication even more effective. I’d love to hear what that was. What’s your biggest takeaway? What is an action that you’re planning to take? And then if you can come back and report to me on how that was and what you found, oh my God, that would make me so happy! That can also help start a very productive conversation with other listeners, so I would welcome that. You can of course do that on the comments section of the show notes page for this episode, or on social media, like for example on our Facebook group the TalentGrowers community, or email me or leave me a voice mail message on my website. Just tap that little black tab that says “send voicemail” and send me a voicemail.
That’s it for another episode of the TalentGrow Show, a solo episode this time. And I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow. I’m so glad that you came, that you listened, and I really hope that you will take action so that your communication will become more effective and that you will become a better leader of yourself and a leader of others. Thank you for listening, and until the next time, make today great.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.
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