Is what you mean the same as what they hear?

Issue November/December 2017 December 2017 By Susan Letterman White
Law Practice Management Section Review

It is impossible not to communicate to other people when you and others are in the same proximity, whether that is face-to-face, on the phone, through writing or a virtual connection. The measure of good communication is when what you say matches what they hear and has the outcome that matches your intention. The communication process can make it challenging to create good communication.

Communication between two people is a two-way process of: (1) perception, (2) reflection or meaning-making, and (3) responding. Since people often start with very different perceptions of the same event, it’s no surprise that they often reach different conclusion about what it means and what to do. Every step in the communication cycle is vulnerable to deterioration from the previous step. Take steps to maintain the integrity of messages and good communication.

The Communication Cycle

There are ways to create good communication through listening and checking for understanding. In a back-and-forth fashion, we essentially negotiate a shared understanding. When we do this explicitly, we are able to create an intentional, cooperative understanding. We do this using a few key principles of productive communication.

Principles of productive communication

People communicate for the purpose of expressing and addressing wants, needs, expectations, interests and concerns. Before I can help you, you can help me, or we can work together to help each other or another person or entity, we need a shared understanding of the full situation and mutual trust and respect. Productive communication builds mutual understanding and develops relationships, solves problems and develop new ideas. There are six principles that are the foundation of productive communication:

  • Communicate purposefully
  • Listen to understand
  • Suspend judgment
  • Identify interests
  • Seek out options for solutions
  • Design solutions

“Communicate purposefully” means that you have a clear intention of how you want your communication to affect another person. Questions to ask yourself before you communicate include:

  • What is your purpose?
  • What are the messages you want to send?
  • To whom is each message directed?
  • How can you best convey your message?

“Listen to understand” means that you listen to another person without planning your response. After carefully listening to the person’s interests, you ask questions to check whether or not your perception of the communication is what the person intended to communicate to you. Statements to seek understanding are open-ended questions or requests for clarification and begin with:

  • Let me see if I understand, you said…
  • Did you mean…
  • Tell me more about…
  • Can you elaborate on that?

“Suspend judgment” means that you are curious to discover what information and assumptions are behind a person’s statements. You refrain from stating your position or arguing and instead you state your interests. You wonder why something communicated is important to the person communicating. Questions to show curiosity and suspend judgment are:

  • Why is that important?
  • Why is that a concern?
  • Why does that matter?
  • What leads you to that conclusion?

“Identify interests” means identifying goals, wants, needs, expectations, concerns, and hopes.

  • Disclose your interests.
  • Listen for and acknowledge the interests of others.
  • Clarify your understanding of others’ interests.
  • Look for and identify shared interests.

After everyone has had an opportunity to identify their interests and once everyone understands the interests of others, it’s time to seek out options for solutions. Look for and identify possible options.

“Designing solutions” means jointly discussing the options and how each satisfies interests. Look for fairness, reasonableness and the ability to implement the solutions. Do you need to add in time management or accountability processes for ideal solution implementation?

The purpose of these principles is to improve the quality of communication by moving away from assumptions and rushing to a judgment in favor of developing a shared understanding that what you intend is also understood.