“I haven’t finished asking my question,” I snapped at my mother’s physician who had interrupted me at every turn. Because I’d spoken with Dr. P. before, I knew his style was argumentative and egotistical. I always dread calling. When he finally delivered the gold nugget I needed to hear, I could have easily missed it because I was starting to tune him out. And he used the word “you” instead of “I.” What he said was, “You can’t ignore what you’re told and do nothing.” What he meant was, “I can’t ignore what I’m told and do nothing,” conveying his practice ethics and interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath. Message received. A light bulb went on that my ninety-eight year old mother’s expectations for conversation and her doctor's need to act didn’t match up.
A poorly wrapped communication package invites premature judgment about the contents—and I’m not immune. Intellectually, I know better than to make the assumption that there’s nothing of import being said even when the tone is condescending and the words are imprecise. I had typecast Dr. P as a difficult person and my confirmation bias led to filtering out anything that didn’t fit that belief. It was an out-of-character comment that caused me to listen more carefully than I might have. What a great lesson in seeking meaning beyond tone and preconceived notions.
If this example reminds you of unsatisfactory conversations you’ve had, here are some actions to consider in the future.
At the point you’re angry or offended, be alert to your internal dialog. It can be so loud that you literally don’t hear what’s being said. If you find yourself thinking, “How dare she treat me that way?” or “Does he think I’m an idiot?” or “Can’t they ever get to the point?” that’s when you need to tell yourself to stop ruminating and pay attention to the person’s words.
If you’ve had previous negative experiences with this person, remind yourself that confirmation bias has the effect of sifting out anything that doesn’t support your critical view. Hold yourself accountable with a simple phrase such as, “That’s just how they roll, I need to be open to everything they have to say.”
You may have to read between the lines if the language is vague or imprecise, as I did in the example above when “you” meant “I.” If you find yourself guessing at their meaning, ask if your interpretation is correct.
If you’re talked-over, try assertive techniques to be heard. Interrupt by using the person’s name (we tend to startle at our name), and say, “I wasn’t finished.” Then quickly get to the point.
With authority figures (doctors, experts, the boss) it can feel riskier to speak up but the same assertive techniques work. Remain respectful in tone, use their name, and state your question again or give information. You can add in words to soften the interruption as demonstrated in the following examples. “Dr. Jones, thank you but what I really need to know is if this is life threatening,” or “Stacey, I appreciate the detail, however, I didn’t hear you say whether I could proceed with the purchase order.”
If you find yourself becoming heated, refocus on their actual words and try to set your emotions to the side. Self-talk such as, “This is important, keep listening,” may serve you. You can be outraged later, right now you need to hear the content.
None of us is exempt from being a problematic communicator or inadvertently generating upset or offense. Some good communication hygiene habits are:
Leave space in the conversation for the other person to chime in (a dialog rather than a monologue).
If the person looks confused, ask and hear them out before responding.
Be brave and speak up if they’re suddenly angered by your comments. Try saying, “You look upset, what’s up?” It may be that they misinterpreted your words based on their own filters or you were unclear. This gives you the chance to phrase your message differently.
Even when we’ve decided it’s the other person who’s the lousy communicator, we’re still part of the equation. As the old saw goes, it takes two to tango. So, to understand and be understood, take more responsibility for clear communication than you think is reasonable. Go ahead and be the one who pays closer attention—you’ll also reap the benefits.
They say that we teach what we most need to learn. That’s certainly true in this case! Here is an area in which I can continue to grow, how about you?