Q12: I’m easily blown off course in communication. Can you help?
Q12: How can I avoid getting blown off course during a conversation?
(1st July 2012)
A salty old sea-dog friend of mine says he only sets sail when the winds are favourable. But as all good sailors know (he adds) there are only three kinds of wind: too much, too little, and wind blowing in the wrong direction...
Sometimes communication is just like that. What comes our way feels too much, too little - or the wrong thing altogether!
So what can we do if we're blown off course by hidden agendas or unvoiced concerns; or if subterranean currents steer us in unexpected directions?
In search of firm ground
To move forward effectively, conversations need a sense of solid ground (even knowing when it isn't solid is a good start). One way to find this is to be clear whose ground we are on at any one moment, whose perspective we are seeing, whose feelings and needs we are addressing. As I put it:
Whose mountain are we on?
This determines where we focus our attention and energy. It shows us where we're coming from; and it's easier to see where we're heading.
Losing our bearings
We might lose our sense of direction for several reasons:
Listening 'too well'
When we're well connected or close to a person, we're naturally empathic. We easily move onto their ground. We catch where they're coming from, and quickly see their perspective. If a speaker is genuinely engaging, we're also easily enticed onto their mountain, and go there willingly. But this also carries a risk.
Without a moment to touch base with ourselves, we may not have had time to work out where we stand. We usually need some space for our own responses to form - for our ideas, feelings and agendas to crystallise. Without that, we may even forget we have any! It's easy to get swept along by someone else's idea, or pushed into a corner; and maybe we only realise later how unhappy we are with the conversation.
So it helps to know when to move back onto our own ground. Travelling to someone else's mountain is a necessary (a wonderful!) part of communication - but we need to know when to go back home.
Only half listening
At other times, we may think we're on someone else's mountain, when in fact, we're hopping back onto our own. We try to catch what the other person is saying, and at the same time to figure out our own responses. We're sorting out what we make of the issues - perhaps before we've fully heard them. Or we're racing about in our minds, finding solutions - perhaps without checking if that's what the other person really wants. When we do this, we are no longer simply on their mountain. We've slid back onto our own.
This is understandable. Our own responses are stimulated as we take in what someone else says. It's not always easy to see:
- That is their response (to their situation; to me)
- This is my response (to my situation; to them)
We may not realise when we have moved from absorbing the other person's perspective, and we're responding once more from our own. This slows down our exchanges, and complicates the messages we give each other.
Not listening at all!
Two-way conversations involve two people. At some point, we want to bring ourselves in. When and how to do this is a knotty question. If we're involved, or anxious, or passionate about what's going on around us, it's easy to leap right in and say our piece. We may forget to check where the other person is just now. Are they ready to listen to us? Are they willing to leave their own ground, and visit ours?
At best, the other person will be open and receptive to our points - and we can say what we want with calm assurance. But suppose the other person is not really ready or willing to hear what we say? We may well get something unexpected back - something we'd rather not hear! If we don't see the thunderstorms gathering over the other person as we speak, we may feel hurt, indignant or surprised as a lightning bolt crashes into the conversation.
My point here is not what we 'ought' to do in a conversation. There are no rules! We can choose equally whether to express ourselves or listen. I'm simply saying that it saves time, and promotes a harmonious flow, if we know (and can honestly admit) whose viewpoint are we exploring at any one moment. In other words:Whose mountain are we on?
So if you find yourself getting confused in a conversation, take a moment to pause. Notice whose ground you are on. The best place to be is the one that brings most clarity and a good sense of connection - for you, for others, for the interaction as a whole.
With this as your base, you'll know more clearly where you are coming from - and which way the wind is blowing!
You will find yourself more able to:
Choose calmly whether to speak or listen
Decide what to say or do next
Communicate that choice to others
Discover someone else's perspective - their ground