The True Meaning of Communication – Part 1

What does it mean to be a good communicator? Is effective communication a key part of being a leader?  People are certainly concerned about being good communicators.  A google search of “good communicator” comes up with:

About 4,990,000 results (0.25 seconds)

Clearly people want to work on becoming better communicators.  It is a key aspect of being an effective leader. If you have the best plans, budgets, etc… but can not communicate them then that is a problem.  As you know being an effective communicator is not always easy.

People communicate in a myriad of ways.  Some people are direct, some people are not so direct and some people are not even sure what they are trying to communicate.  There are a million ways to get a point across and sometimes the method you use is just as important as the point you want to make.

Principals are often required to sift through conversations and words to determine the true meaning of what is being said and what the person wants from the conversation.  This is really tough to do, especially for new principals.  When I was a beginning principal I thought when people came with a problem they wanted you to give a solution.  It seemed rational.  I thought that they would not be expressing this issue if they didn’t want me to attempt to resolve it.  I quickly learned this was simply not always the case.  It became apparent that I needed to work on determining the underlying meaning to most conversations.

One particular scene replays in my mind when thinking about this.  During my first year as principal two secretaries were in my office and were both were very upset.  I really do not even remember what the issue was but they both felt they were being “wronged” by the other. As the conversation progressed I tried to bring the issue to a resolution and come to some agreements.  It never got out of hand but I am not sure anything was quite resolved despite my best efforts.  I remember recounting the story with my principal mentor that evening and he calmly said, “Well it sounds like you were trying to solve their problem when they really didn’t want you to solve the problem”. He continued you with, “You have to learn that not everyone thinks the same way and sometimes people just need to be heard”.  His words stuck with me. I needed to learn the nuances of effective communication.  Different people expect different things from different situations.  Clear as mud, right?

One way I began to work on this was to become a better listener. I do not think I was ever a horrible listener but I knew I could use some work.  I try my best to attentively listen to someone when they speak.  It is easy to look and nod and prepare my next comments but that is hardly listening.  It is so easy to spot when someone is not truly listening.  They can be doing something else or just waiting for their turn to speak.  I try to turn my attention to the speaker.  I remember as a beginning principal people coming into my office to ask something and I never looked up from the email or whatever I was typing on the computer.  I was able to hold the conversation and give an answer but they were probably thinking “What the heck is this guy doing?”

As I type this I think back to the book Liar, Liar by Gary Paulson that I just finished last night.  In it, the main character talks about what a great liar he is. He boasts how easy it is to make people feel like you are paying attention with a few nods, uh-huhs, and well placed questions that make it seem you are listening.  Of course all this comes crashing down throughout the story.  Reflecting on how I listened but physically ignored the teacher sin my doorway  pretty much horrified me.  What my body language was saying is that the email I am working on is more important than you.  Not an effective way of communication for sure!  I knew I needed to stop this right away.  I always try to stop and look at the person who is speaking to me at the time.  I also try to truly listen to a person when they speak.  The famous “Yes, but…..” kills me.  Essentially you are saying “yes” and then disagreeing with what they said.  So why even say yes to begin with?  The point is many times we don’t listen to what others are saying.

I was able to develop ways to become a better listener.  I continue to work on ways to digging through the meaning of conversations.  I think this is much more difficult than being a good, attentive listener.  I am the type of person who often says exactly what it is I am trying to say but I now know that not everyone does this in all situations.  There are many subtle nuances to communication.  A leader works hard to get to the true meaning of the communication.  If you miss the entire point of what someone is saying you certainly will struggle to support that person (of just listen to them if that is what they are seeking).  One colleague says she know starts conversations with “What are you hoping will happen as a result of this conversation”?  She doesn’t say this every time she talks to someone because, well,  that would be creepy.  She uses this in meetings where emotions are involved.

One last note- people can see through someone who is less than genuine.  Kids are awesome at this.  When communicating remember to be honest- both with yourself and the people with whom you are communicating. 

What are some ways you handle these types of situations?

Mike

Look for Part 2 from Dr. Dixon soon!

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