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Remember the children's game "Telephone?" A group of kids sits in a circle and one of them begins by whispering a simple message to the person next to him or her. That person, in turn, relays the message to the next child. And so on and so on, until it finally works its way back to the originator.
Of course, the final message bears little resemblance to the way it started out. The more twisted the meaning, the funnier it is.
So it is in real life. Only the results aren't always so amusing. Messages get garbled. Dialogue is twisted. Conversation is taken out of context. The toll such miscommunication places on personal and professional relationships is incalculable.
It doesn't have to be that way. Communication is a skill that requires much discipline and hard work. But it can be far richer and more meaningful if you apply some of the following rules:
Look for common ground. The goal of communication is to connect with another person. To do so means that you must know where that person is and where they're coming from. Consider the 3-1/2 year-old boy eating an apple in the back seat of the car when he asked, "Daddy, why is my apple turning brown?" "Because," his dad explained, "after you ate the skin off, the meat of the apple came into contact with the air, which caused it to oxidize, thus changing its molecular structure and turning it into a different color." There was a long silence. Then the boy asked softly, "Daddy, are you talking to me?" Accept the fact that everybody has his or her own agenda and there is little you can do to change it. Talk to them on their own level and watch the effectiveness of your conversation skyrocket.
Listen. We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Remember it. Talk only half as much as you listen. Don't spend time while the other person is talking, playing out what you are going to say or looking for an opening to say your piece. Unlike a tennis match, the goal of conversation is not to deliver a service ace, but to keep the other person engaged by keeping the ball in play. That means you have to concentrate totally on what the other person is saying verbally, physically and emotionally.
Really listen. Taking a page from Stephen Covey's bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand, then to be understood. Get rid of the personal filters, assumptions, judgments and beliefs that color what you hear and the way you hear it.
Avoid distractions. To really hear what the other person is saying takes discipline. Avoid interrupting. Let the other person finish their thought. Don't finish their sentences or put words in their mouth. Be patient and show genuine respect for them. Avoid the temptation to give unwanted advice. That can be perceived as patronizing and will stifle the flow of conversation. There will be a time to share your perspective. Just remember that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Clarify. There are numerous ways to tactfully keep the conversation moving. Reframe the speaker's content to ensure you heard what you thought you heard. Don't assume anything. Ask broad, open-ended questions that will elicit more information and engage both of you more fully. Be sincere. Ask questions that get to the bottom of someone's real concern or agenda.
Maintain credibility. Be sincere in your dialogue. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be open, honest and candid. If you don't know the answer, say so. If you say you're going to do something, do it. Let your actions support your words. In other words, under promise and over deliver. What you do shouts in other people's ears much louder than what you say.
Stay cool. In the face of what might be perceived as a personal attack, remain calm and collected. Don't take such assaults personally. The other person's mood or response is more likely about fear or frustration than it is about you as an individual. Don't respond in kind, but try to drill down to the root of the problem and address it.
Be positive. Don't talk about others behind their backs. If you do, you will eventually gain a reputation for this type of behavior and lose the trust and respect of others. Refrain from offensive language, off-color jokes and stories, ethnic or racial humor or anything that might offend someone else.
Align your actions with your words. It's not just what you say but how you say it. Studies show that what you say (your words) accounts for only 7% of what others perceive of you. The balance—93%—stems from body language, facial expression, and voice tone. Recognize the nonverbal barriers to effective communication, and make sure the tone of your voice, your posture, your gestures and your movements support your words.
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