Monday, April 22, 2013

4 things toddlers can teach us about professional communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw

This quote, long one of my favourites, ran through my mind this morning as I attempted to bundle my toddler up and get her out of the house. Not quite two years old, she still has only the most rudimentary grasp of language, and it’s often difficult to decipher her meaning.

“Guldk” she said, looking up at me with clear blue eyes. “GULDK” she insisted, those eyes showing the same mixture of frustration and annoyance I’ve so often seen around conference room tables during difficult conversations.

What did she want? A book to take in the car? Me to look at something interesting? Food? I had no idea.

Communication is a human constant, though, and the process of deciphering my toddler is no different, at its core, than what good communication in the workplace requires.

1) Remember that you don’t actually know what other people are trying to say… unless you listen to them.
This is almost automatic with a toddler, because they're often not using words we can understand. Even if we can understand the word, we may not know the intention. "Apple" might mean that she wants an apple, or "isn't that apple pretty," or "let's feed the deer an apple." I need more information before I can understand what my daughter is trying to communicate.

As adults, each of us filters all communication through our own culture, experiences, pre-conceived notions, and moods. We assume that we know what the intention behind a phrase or a word is; we attach our own connotations and assume that these are the same connotations the speaker has for those words. We may assume that "apple" means, "I want an apple" when it really means, "I'd like to give you this apple."

Begin communication with a genuine desire to connect with the other person. Remembering that communication isn't as easy as it seems paradoxically makes success far more likely.

An added bonus: you might learn something.

2) Communication takes time.
Stop. Breathe. If you find yourself getting annoyed by someone else’s inability to grasp what you’re saying, allow yourself the time to listen to what they’re saying.

3) Sometimes, words aren’t enough.
Communicating with a toddler is a lot like playing 20 Questions.
“What do you want, honey? Do you want a book?”
“A drink?”
“No.” A note of derision this time.
“Some food?”
“Yeah! Fud,” she replied, her eyes lighting up, pointing to the cat’s bowl.

Eureka! She was concerned that the cat hadn’t yet had her “breakfast.”

If it hadn’t been for body language, I’d never have figured this out. Watching body language and listening to tone of voice are just as important in the workplace. With more communication being done digitally, it’s increasingly difficult to put our communication into context. As Gini Dietrich points out in her article about managing people who work from home, knowing the proper medium for the type of conversation you need to have is important. If it’s going to be a difficult conversation, don’t use email.

4) It’s worth it.
The feeling of satisfaction that comes from resolving a communication challenge isn’t the only reward for your time and patience. Often, you’ll learn something about the person you’re communicating with – and if you give yourself time to contemplate, maybe something about yourself as well.