Conversations Are So Complicated

Two people talking

When we get into a conversation with someone how do we know that they really get what we are saying? The idea of communication being a two-way thing is a bit old hat really as there’s more to it than that:

    • we say something,
    • the other person hears it,
    • we notice their reaction,
    • they think about what they thought they heard,
    • then they say something,
    • and so it goes on…….

There’s lots of processing going on and checking-in on what was said. If we aren’t doing this then surely all we are doing is transmitting with the vague hope that the recipient hears what we know we wanted to say. I’d rather make sure what I said was understood than leave it to hope.

So how do we even know what we intended to say is what was received if we don’t check-in with those on the receiving end? The body language of the person on the receiving end and especially facial expressions are excellent clues as to whether what we said hit home. Providing the relationship is good then there ought to be no problem at all in someone responding with “I don’t follow you” but all too often that doesn’t happen. Why might this be the case? Well, for one thing, they may well understand just what you were saying only it wasn’t what you intended getting across. Hopefully this will come out as the conversation develops but, again, this isn’t always the case. Secondly, and this happens often in business settings and conversations between a manager and team member – the person on the receiving end doesn’t understand what’s said but doesn’t want to admit it or doesn’t feel that they can.

For those people in positions of power this is a difficult concept to understand at times. They will say that they are always asking for feedback and for a dialogue and may well trumpet that their company culture is one of openness. What’s written on a website and on posters on the wall can be very different from reality. It’s all very well saying you ask for dialogue but if the way you ask for it deters anyone from piping-up then there is no way you will engage with the people in your team or business that you need to motivate to achieve success.

I was once working with a client who was extremely competent and came across as very professional in the role they had which included heading up a large business unit and involved chairing meetings with senior suppliers and stakeholders. On a one-to-one basis this person was very amiable and focused on their business goals. I was asked to observe a few meetings to provide some feedback on how they went and his own performance at them. What I saw at the meetings was someone who I knew wanted open discussions on difficult issues that needed to be resolved but was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of engagement by those around the table.

I was able to feed back to him my observations that he had asked, well, almost demanded that people be open with him about any issues. That was not exactly encouraging. Also, because he was so focused on getting through his meeting he was always referring to his own notes and when he spoke to the meeting this was the only time he lifted his head. This hardly gave the impression of someone who wanted to engage. And, thirdly, he never left a long enough time to elapse for people to bring forward their concerns. All in all he was left with the impression that most things were okay and that the few items that had been discussed were pretty straightforward to deal with. My observations around the room as the meetings came to an end suggested otherwise.

This was a person who genuinely wanted to engage but his own focus and enthusiasm prevented him from seeing the lack of engagement with, in this case, a room full of people. Over time he was able to develop his style without losing his focus and enthusiasm so that in similar situations he was able to get a much clearer picture of the issues that needed dealing with far earlier than otherwise would have been the case.

A conversation then is far more than the words flowing this way and that. The meaning behind the words conveyed by the tone, speed of delivery and the way we hold your body is key to helping the other person or people understand. Of course we may not be as clear as we would like to be in the first place but the whole purpose of holding a conversation is to build understanding, an understanding by each person of the other.

You might also be interested in Two Ears Aren’t Enough


2 thoughts on “Conversations Are So Complicated

  1. Pingback: What’s In A Conversation? | Organization and Leadership Development |

  2. This article resonates with me in two aspects of my life. First, there is nothing that will deplete my motivation and shut me down more quickly than if I feeling as though I am not being listened to. I need feedback from the those with whom I am communicating to keep me motivated in whatever process I am undertaking at the time.

    Secondly, as a generally enthusiastic communicator, I am challenged to slow down enough to allow others to provide feedback to me and take the time to, “know what we(I) intended to say is… received.”

    Good insight! Thank you…

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