Effective Communication: It’s Not About You
By Brenda Clark Hamilton, MA Ed.
Recently, my husband Chris and I dropped my van off for repairs just after the dealership closing time. Thankfully, the dealership owner was working late and was able to check the vehicle in and chat with us a few minutes.
Upon learning of my work as a trainer and speaker, the gentleman, who struck me as a man who had weathered his many years as a successful business owner due to hard work, wisdom, and introspection, asked me an intriguing question: “In all of the presentations that you’ve done, what’s the most important thing that you have learned as a speaker?”
It took me a minute to respond, but this is the gist of what I said: “I’ve learned that it’s not about me. We speakers have a tendency to go before a group thinking about ourselves and what we can do to ‘impress’ the group. The reality is that the most important thing you can do as a speaker is to think about your audience: who they are, what’s going on in their lives, what’s important to them, what their interests and biases are, and what is the best way to reach them based upon that information.”
When I think of the most skillful communicators that I know, I see people who take the above advice to heart, whether they are speaking to a group of 1000 strangers, or one-on-one with a trusted confidante. A critical action we can take to be a successful communicator, no matter what our profession or circumstances, is to get the focus off of ourselves and onto whomever we are talking to.
Years ago, I taught a Composition II community college night class. Comp. II was the class where students learned to write research papers of varying types: expository, persuasive, cause and effect. One of the key points I made to my students was that you will never write an effective persuasive paper until you thoroughly understand where your opposition stands on the issue. Part of the requirement of their persuasive essay was that they research and respectfully acknowledge the opposition’s point of view, then work to refute the opposing arguments point-by-point in their essay.
I think the same principle applies to communicators of all types. If you want to be an effective communicator, you must first understand who your audience is and what is on their minds. I think we’ve all had the disheartening experience of trying to tell someone something really important to us and feeling like ships passing in the night in what little they are grasping of where we’re coming from.
Critical questions to ask yourself when preparing to communicate with someone verbally or in writing include the following:
? Who am I talking to?
? How much do they already know about the subject?
? What biases, if any, do they hold on the subject?
? What are their interests related to this topic?
? What’s on their minds as I address them? What other issues might be going on in their lives right now that may be taking precedence?
? Based on this information, what considerations should I take in communicating with them?
If you want to be an effective communicator, it is fundamental that you be a good listener. One of my favorite quotes on active listening comes from Stephen Covey, who says, “Seek first to understand.” Covey’s point is that you can never be an effective listener—or communicator—until you embrace the mindset that you first want to just understand where the other person is coming from. This might mean temporarily setting aside judgments you have about the person or any agendas of your own.
For all of us, the challenge is to, each day, approach our various conversations and communications with the spirit of an exemplary speaker preparing to persuasively address a crowd, i.e., realizing that if you want to be a communicator that people really respond to, you first need to know who you are talking to. It truly is not about you.
When I think of the car dealer who inspired this whole thought process of mine, I suspect that he’s been a master at implementing these ideas all of these years. How can you possibly sell a car to someone until you first recognize the buyer’s desires and concerns: What type of car do they want? What are their priorities—Price? Safety? Style? Efficiency?
I also was struck that this successful and well-established businessman was seeking to learn from me, someone relatively new to the speaking business. Obviously, habits of being curious and humbly getting to know who you are communicating with die hard. I’m sure that’s an integral piece of what’s kept him moving forward in his business all these years.