Recently my son decided that he wanted to change a class in his junior high schedule. My wife and son went to pay a visit to the school counselor.
During the meeting, the counselor asked him why he wanted to change to a different science teacher.
He said, “Well most of the time I have a difficult time focusing which makes the teacher really hard to understand.”
To this the counselor replied, “What you really mean is your teacher is boring and you can’t stay awake. Is that right?”
He responded, “Well I didn’t say exactly that.” Unfortunately for him, she did not allow him to change teachers.
When my wife told me this story, I thought that perhaps we were doing something right, and I was impressed that he had enough presence of mind to think about how to frame a message in a way that was more respectful and that might lead to a positive outcome.
Consider the power of words in your message. Dr. Albert Mehrabian taught that when talking about your feelings or attitudes that only 7% of your message comes from the words that you use. He also proposed that your tone accounted for 38% and body language or nonverbal behavior accounted for the remaining 55% of meaning in your message.
However, it would be a broad generalization to assume that all messages would be attributable to the same percentages. Once someone asked me, “How do you know when your message was absolutely and perfectly clear?”
To which I responded, “When I am angry.”
My confidence in my response is based on the perfect alignment of my words, feelings, and actions. Unfortunately, we know that speaking to people in a state of high or hot emotion does not a rational conversation create, nor can we trust the accuracy of what the other person is hearing or what they will say. What we don’t often take into account when we are delivering our message is the context within which that message is being delivered.
Words when combined are powerful tools for inspiring, uplifting, enlightening, informing, motivating, and describing any number of situations. One of the most powerful functions of words is the picture or context that they create for the listener.
For example, if someone told you that a person was self-centered before you even met him, when you finally did meet, you would see everything that he or she did as evidence that they were self-centered. And unless you were consciously assessing your own interpretations or judgments of their behavior, you may never change your opinion of that particular character trait.
In fact a famous psychologist once told me that once President Clinton told the public that he “did not have sex with that woman,” that no matter what evidence was offered later, many people still refused to believe anything that ran contrary to what they initially thought.
If you want the message that you deliver to have a positive impact, consider the following questions you might ask yourself that will help you consider the context of the message and the person to whom you are speaking:
What is the topic to be discussed? Obviously the delivery of your message will be different based on the topic. Is this a search for understanding? Do you need to provide constructive or negative feedback? Are you simply looking for more information on an issue? Is this a very sensitive subject with legal ramifications that need to be discussed? You need to be clear about the topic and determine the best way to approach the message you want to deliver.
What is the purpose of the conversation? Specifically identifying your purpose allows you to determine what you would like the person to do. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, then you are almost assured of not achieving what you want. You have to know what you would like the end result to be if you expect to communicate clearly.
What is the current status of your relationship? You might even ask yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 how much trust currently exists in your relationship with them. In situations where you have a strong or positive relationship, where the person really knows that you care about them both as a person and a professional, you can deliver a strong message, and they are less likely to take what you have to say personally. However, you must realize that many people take everything personally as a matter of their style. However, the strength of the relationship should be considered as you chose to deliver your message.
What judgments do you hold or assumptions are you making? Before holding any difficult conversation, it is important for you to surface and assess the judgments or assumptions that you hold about the person. For example, if you think that they are a “jerk,” the chances are great that you will treat them in such a way that your behavior will elicit their jerkiness. In essence we often influence people to show up in a certain way by the way that we treat them. You must identify any negative thinking and suspend it if your conversation is going to be successful.
What are the data in the current situation? Your thinking is based on the data, observation, or evidence that you have experienced. Once you have surfaced your thinking, you need to look for the evidence that substantiates your thinking. For example, if you repeatedly hear yourself accuse a person of being lazy, but you cannot identify any data that would logically lead you to that conclusion, then you need to seriously reflect on the conversation that you need to hold. After all, the data becomes the justification for what the person needs to change. If you can’t point to a specific behavior that you want them to improve, then they will not know what to change.
What is your plan for improving the situation? It is always best if the person comes up with their own plan for improving or changing the current situation. You would do this by asking them what they did, what they might do differently going forward, or where they are stuck in the process of trying to identify a viable solution. If they struggle to identify a plan, you want to be prepared by taking a moment prior to the conversation to identify a possible plan of attack. That way you can offer suggestions to help them create a plan that will work for them and you.
The questions above should help you to consider the words that you will use as you craft your message or prepare for the difficult conversation that you need to hold.
Obviously, not all conversations are difficult, but if the potential is there for the conversation to go awry, you need to slow down, reflect on the questions above, and identify the best way to deliver the message you really want to give.
Taking a moment to do so will improve the message that you deliver and the results you want to achieve.