Dr. Alan Zimmerman's Tuesday Tip
Originally Published on September 13, 2011
Betsy Bernard, president of AT&T Business
A golfer who thought he was very good went out to a course he'd never played before. He was paired up by the starter with another single player, an older man who said he'd been playing the course for years. Thinking that he would benefit from the veteran's knowledge, the golfer began demanding his advice when difficult shots came up. When his shot went well, however, he took credit himself; when his shot went astray, he glared at the veteran.
On the last hole, the golfer needed to get to the green on his next shot to ensure a good score for the round. However, he was behind a tall tree. Trying to decide what to do, he asked the veteran for advice. The veteran looked at the tree and said, "When I was your age, I'd hit over that tree with a nine iron."
Thus advised, the golfer swung his nine and hit a towering shot -- which hit the top of the tree and fell right back at his feet. He stood there in shock, staring at it.
After a while the veteran said, "Of course, when I was your age, that tree was only three feet tall."
Obviously, the two of them experienced one ... if not several ... communication breakdowns. And that's unfortunate.
After all, your entire interpersonal life is dependent on your ability to communicate. To have effective, working relationships on and off the job, you have to be skilled at making your thoughts, feelings, and needs known to others, and you have to be receptive to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others.
Now on the surface, communication appears to be deceptively simple. You send a message and somebody else receives it. You speak and another person hears you. It sounds very easy, doesn't it?
In reality, communication is extremely difficult. Between your sending of a message and another person receiving it, several NOISE factors can enter in and distort if not destroy the messages you send and the messages you receive.
So I advise people in my seminars, "Don't assume you're understood, and don't assume you understand. When you assume ... as the word spells ... a-s-s-u-m-e ... you make an a_s of you and me."
Beyond that, it helps if you are aware of the various NOISE factors that can interfere with your communication effectiveness. Some of the more common ones include:
In the midst of a conversation, you or the other person may be guilty of focusing on something going on in your life instead of what is being said at that very moment. I know I'm guilty of that some of the time.
In fact, one New York columnist believed that was the case with a certain socialite who was so preoccupied with making an outstanding impression that she was unable to hear anything her guests were saying. To test his theory, he came late to her next party, and when he was greeted effusively at the door by the hostess, he said, "I'm sorry to be late, but I murdered my wife this evening and had the darndest time stuffing her body in the trunk of my car." The super-charming hostess beamed and replied, "Well, darling, the important thing is that you have arrived, and now the party can really begin!"
To counteract this NOISE, remind yourself throughout the conversation or throughout the meeting, "Focus. Focus."
2. Emotional blocks
Sometimes some words, phrases, or comments are so emotionally charged that they shut down the communication process. We all know that the "B" word, the "N" word, and the "F" word do that, because they're offensive to almost everyone.
But on a very personal basis, there may be a host of other words, phrases, and topics that are so emotional for you that once they're brought up, it's difficult for you to keep on talking with any degree of rationality or keep on listening with any degree of true understanding. For example, a woman who is having difficulty conceiving a child may not be able to carry on much of a conversation with her Aunt Jessica who's always saying, "It's about time you have a baby. After all, you've been married five years now, and you're not getting any younger." She may find herself avoiding her Aunt, cutting her off, changing the subject, or giving her a put-down wisecrack.
To prevent this kind of NOISE, remind yourself to stay calm and stay in control. Don't let the other person's inappropriate remark or your own hypersensitivity steal your peace.
When there's hostility in the air, you can bet the communication process will be affected. Messages will be distorted. You may be angry with the person you're talking to, or you may be carrying around some anger from another situation.
For example, a husband and wife may be at a car dealer, trying to buy her a new car for her new job. When the salesman quotes a price and the wife says that sounds good, the husband interjects, "Just a minute. I think that's way too expensive." They get into an argument, where the husband says, "I was just trying to help you save some money." She responds, "Are you trying to tell me I'm incapable of negotiating my own deal?" And the war is on. After that, it's doubtful that either one of them truly understood everything that was felt and said.
When I speak to salespeople, I find that many of them inadvertently fall into this communication NOISE trap. Somehow they believe that their perception of their product or service is the only right and possible perception, and if a prospective customer disagrees with them, they become adversarial or argumentative. They become hostile.
The customer may say, for instance, "Your price is too high." The salesperson immediately responds, "Not really, when you consider the value we provide." Even though the salesperson means well, when he becomes overtly defensive, when he responds with words such as: "Not really ... But ... When you consider ... Compared to ... and ... Not exactly," he has become hostile. He's spending more of his energy on trying to persuade the customer that he is wrong than trying to understand the customer's point of view. It seldom works.
You might want to get a copy of my book "The Service Payoff: How Customer Service Champions Outserve And Outlast The Competition."
To remove the NOISE of hostility, tell yourself, "Withhold evaluation until comprehension is complete." In other words, don't jump to conclusions. Get all the facts before your react or respond.
The charisma of the message sender may affect how the message is received. You see this NOISE factor in politics all the time. Quite often, candidates are chosen and elected not so much for the brilliance of their thought as the way in which they say it. A charismatic politician can make a tired, trivial, or even stupid message seem new, exciting, and right ... fooling the receiver into thinking that she doesn't even have to question or clarify the message.
Are you ever guilty of falling prey to this NOISE trap? Have you ever come away from hearing a dynamic speaker, only to discover that you cannot remember what he said? And have you ever failed to listen to someone who had something important to say ... but didn't bother to listen ... because that speaker was dull compared to the charismatic speaker? If so, the communication process between you and the other person just came to a screeching halt.
To keep the charisma NOISE factor in check, remind yourself that WHAT a person says is much more important than HOW he says it.
5. Past experiences
Sometimes your past experiences can set you up to tune out and turn off the communication process. If, for example, your weekly staff meetings have almost always been a waste of time, you may enter a meeting expecting to learn nothing. So you fall back into trap #1 ... Preoccupation.
If you're not careful, you may overuse your past experience to pre-judge the communication that is about to take place as unworthy of your time. And as a result, you miss some important things you need to know or need to do.
Or you may misinterpret the meaning of something ... if only rely on your past experience ... and if you fail to ask right questions. Kids do this all the time. It's like the little girl who was watching her parents dress for party. When she saw her dad donning his tuxedo, she warned, "Daddy, you shouldn't wear that suit." "And why not, darling?" Dad asked. "You know that it always gives you a headache the next morning."
Similarly one of my audience members, an in-home nursing assistant, talked about taking her four-year old daughter with her as she visited her elderly shut-in patients. She said her daughter was especially intrigued with all the canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and other equipment used by the patients. But one day she found her daughter staring at a pair of false teeth soaking in a glass. As she braced herself for a barrage of questions, her daughter merely turned and whispered, "The tooth fairy will never believe this!"
In both cases, the children used their past experiences to make sense out of what they saw, but in both cases they came to wrong conclusion. The communication process was flawed.
To avoid making such NOISE mistakes, you can certainly use your past experience as a guide. Just don't overdo it. I tell my audiences that your past experience gives you a vote but not a veto in making sense out of things.
And finally, for today's purposes, if you're going to have effective communication, be aware of and try to remove the NOISE factor of...
There's an old saying amongst communication professors that says, "Words don't have meanings. People do." In other words, the same word can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. And that always causes communication problems.
However, some words are much more likely to cause communication problems than others, and you have to be especially cautious about using them. Sales trainer Jeff Thull calls them "fat words." Words such as "almost ... maybe ... might ... quality ... soon ... user friendly ... easy ... and ... improved" are fatter than others. There are dozens if not hundreds of different things each of those words could mean to the salesperson and the customer.
For example, if a prospective customer told you, a salesperson, "I'm not sure your level of quality will meet our requirements," what would be your most likely response? To give a sales pitch about your product or service. It's the exact wrong thing to do. As Thull states, "It's not appropriate to answer a statement as if it were a question" because you don't even know what your customer is saying.
After all, his statement is filled with ambiguity and fat words. You have no idea what he means by "not sure," "level of quality," and "meet our requirements."
To reduce this NOISE factor in your communication, remember that every fat ambiguous word needs to be clarified before making a response to it.
Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship at home or on the job. But poor communication can also be the killer of those same relationships if there's too much NOISE in the communication process. The good news ... you can reduce or remove much of that noise if use follow these tips.
Which of the six NOISE factors does the most damage to your communication effectiveness? Decide right now what you are going to do about it.
Make every day your payoff day!
Dr. Alan Zimmerman
©2011 Reprinted with permission from Dr. Alan Zimmerman, a full-time professional speaker who specializes in attitude, motivation, and leadership programs that pay off. For more information on his programs ... or to receive your own free subscription to the 'Tuesday Tip' ... go to http://www.drzimmerman.com or call 800-621-7881.