Balancing a green figure and red figure on a wooden mini see saw

Forging a Better Chain

A model of interpersonal communication that one often hears is that of a “chain”. And like a literal chain, the figurative chain of communication is only as strong as its weakest link.

Unfortunately, every chain of communication is fraught with imperfections and opportunities for ambiguities, misunderstandings and miscommunications.

Let’s break the chain down into some of its component links and examine them.

First, an idea or concept for communication is formed inside of a person’s head as thought. That concept, or thought, is then translated from thought to language inside of that person’s head. Right there is the first opportunity for error. How many times have each of us struggled for just the right word to express our true meaning? English is a versatile and powerful language but it is sorely lacking in many areas for expressing just the right nuance of emotion or feeling. Or, to be fair, perhaps the fault isn’t so much the language but the mastery of the lexicon that is necessary to allow one facile expression. We can’t all be poets, but sometimes it is indeed the artistic, free form illustration of our innermost thoughts that is called for. One would need to write a great song, or a beautiful sonnet, or a profound haiku to give true voice to certain emotions. How many of us are in any way up to that task?

Second, that simple thought, imperfectly translated into speech, must now be transmitted to the intended recipient. Here is another area ripe with the possibility of error, transmission.

As we all know, oftentimes it is not what is said, but how it is said, that delivers the true message. A simple phrase with the wrong emphasis can say many different things. For example, one can say, “here, take it” in such a way as to convey a loving gift openly and freely given. Or, with a different tone and emphasis one can make the recipient feel like an ungrateful wretch. Another example is two simple words, “excuse me”. Said one way it is a plain spoken exposition of a polite request. Said another way it can be the sarcastic comic catch phrase that launched Steve Martin’s career in entertainment. It’s all in the delivery.

The above doesn’t even begin to discuss the full spectrum of “non-verbal” communication that is constantly broadcast outward from a person. Those non-verbal cues can either reinforce or belie a message, depending on the circumstances. The topic of non-verbal communication will be the subject of lengthy consideration in a future article.

The “transmission” by language is also subject to what I call “mechanical” interference. The speaker can have an accent, or a speech impediment, or it can be a noisy environment. The “receiver” can be hearing impaired, or inattentive, or predisposed to hear things in a positive or a negative way. All of these elements, and more, can contribute to the diminution of clear communications.

Third, is the reception of the transmission, the “translation” of the language into thought in the head of the recipient and the cognition of the message. In addition to the mechanical interference noted above, this scenario also lends itself to myriad mistakes of understanding. Words are susceptible of multiple interpretations as well as simply not knowing their intended meaning. Ideas or concepts meant one way can be taken another. A fundamental concept one party may be treating as a basic assumption can be a completely unheard of notion to the other party.

Given the difficulties cited above, not to mention the further complications that arise when people are attempting cross-cultural communication, as happens so often in our modern society, it is a wonder we can communicate with each other at all.

If I had to identify the single most effective interpersonal communication tool available to the effective mediator, I would have to say it is the development of what is known as “active listening” skills.

Active listening allows the mediator to at once take positive steps to assure that she is receiving and interpreting correctly and to assure the transmitting person that she has been heard and understood.

Active listening is a highly effective communications tool, simple to learn and master. When done properly it is the surest path to getting beneath superficial positions to reveal true interests. I am dismayed at how few mediators bother to practice this effective methodology.

To practice active listening the mediator must engage several techniques that when used together result in an assurance of effective communication.

First, the active listener must pay close attention and listen carefully. Watch the speaker’s eyes and mouth. Focus in on what is being said. This seems to be self evident, but when you actually center in and do it, you become aware of how often your mind would wander and your attention would drift if you were not making the effort to hone in and concentrate on the message.

Second, when the speaker reaches a natural break point in the narrative, the effective active listener should interject with a thoughtful re-articulation of what she has just heard. This restatement should be prefaced with words that explain that the listener is attempting to clarify her reception of what she has just heard and recognition that her understanding may be imperfect. For example, “correct me if I am wrong, but what I understand you to be saying is……” or,”so, if I am hearing correctly, to put what you are saying another way, your position is …..” The active listener should make certain to get a clear, unqualified positive response to her re- articulation of the speaker’s message.

If the speaker qualifies or modifies the re-statement in any way, the active listener must re-state until she gets the speaker’s position just so. When that positive acknowledgement of understanding is received the active listener should encourage the speaker to continue and re-engage in the active listening at each significant point in the discourse until the speaker has said everything that she wanted to say. Do not be put off if you have to re-state more than once or twice at any given point or topic. Multiple re-articulations are almost always a positive indication. It shows that the speaker is hearing the active listening feedback and responding to it. As often as not, the speaker is using the active listener’s input to sharpen her own thinking and the dialog is productively enhancing communications.

Admittedly, sometimes the active listening technique may feel hokey when you are doing it. But when you are dealing with someone who is trying very hard to speak their piece and be completely understood, there is no more effective way to give that person the assurance that they have made their point. You can often see the physical signs of relief in a speaker who knows that they have been heard. Their posture relaxes, their faces smooth out and their voice has less stress indicators. It is a rewarding event for both the speaker and the listener.

Very often mediation is a substitute for a “day in court”. If the participants come out with the feeling that they have truly been heard and understood they are more likely to come away with a feeling of satisfaction from the process.

To constantly test the tensile strength of any chain of communication you are attempting to create, apply the test of active listening early and often to assure the best results.

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