Recent conversations with fellow coaches, friends and my boss had in common a certain idea: how to improve communication for the sake of our own goals. That is, to be as natural as possible when talking to the others while keeping in mind that our choice of words is going to affect the outcome of the conversation.
I have heard quite an intelligent remark these days. When we talk to native English speakers, we must mind whether or not our cultural references pollute the conversation too much; let alone speaking with another non-English speaker. As an Italian living in another country where English is not exactly the first spoken language, I relate to this challenge, for I may get into a misunderstanding at any time.
Furthermore, we might adjust our way of communication to the other one, but that does not always mean that we are improving it. As a colleague of mine put it: “data scientists may smile with happiness by hearing the word problem, whereas a business executive is going to pale and get defensive.”
Of course, that was about business conversations; but if you think of it for a moment, that is a “problem” that applies to any conversation.
Our emotional competences help us tailor the conversation with the other parts without getting too nervous or angry, carefully breaking down problems which are not – but are made up by emotional hijacks. These may follow a sentence or an expression, a slang that has two different meanings for the two people in the talk.
It is indeed difficult to discuss unpleasant things without hurting somebody. We are somehow all opinionated; and because of that we have this thing that we want to be right, in order to prove a point. This eventually becomes more important than the other’s feelings, at times.
So, it is important to establish a critical dialogue that leverages the facts and holds opinions back. Here’s how:
A critical dialogue involves powerful questions
Understanding the other’s point of view is often more important than convincing them of ours. Even if our goal is to prove a point, we assume the others are wrong. Well, that feeling is mutual. Powerful questions like the ones we may use in coaching are great to bring clarity. You want to see why there is a certain idea in place, and where it originates.
- Why would you assume this thing is this way?
- What did convince you of that?
- How else it should be otherwise?
Note that why questions are a delicate matter, for our interlocutor can get defensive at any time, especially if heated. But the risk is worth cutting the chase and getting to the heart of the problem.
Mirroring wording is a way to empathise
This relates to the point that originated this little reflection of mine. Context is more important than content, and what for us can sound fine may not for the person we are talking with.
There is a non-verbal phenomenon called “mirroring”: it consists of adapting our body language to the person in front of us. This can happen naturally, but we can also modulate it with awareness and practice. The same goes for wording, which is even more subtle. In fact, if we stick to the wording used by our interlocutor it should be easier to understand them. If we don’t, we can always ask first what they mean with their expression. And once we understood it, we can use it for the rest of the conversation.
While pushing non-verbal mirroring can be perceived as mockery by our partner in conversation, getting into his own terms after asking for clarification has always proven beneficial to me, reducing the risk of disrupting the conversational flow caused by our misinterpretation.
Accept confutation, anytime
Because we believe we are right, does not mean we are. What we consider truths are usually just beliefs. Our beliefs are what make us different from others, they model our way of thinking and acting.
We should make our arguments into critical conversations because, more often than not, it is pointless to prove who is right. It is rather useful, to get a new perspective on the facts that built up the argument we are discussing, and finding common understanding.
This is especially true if you have the tendency to get heated when the others seem not to understand you, just like me. Sadly, this is not always applicable and we need to walk away from the discussion. But we can still reflect upon what happened and perhaps get something out of it.
In conclusion, what do we need it for?
We use rhetorics to convince others about something. It is widely used by sellers, lawyers, and even visionaries. Among those people are also our role models, whether we like it or not. But are their words truly authentic?
The need for critical thinking is becoming more and more urgent. Besides that human social device that is gossip, we also got conspiracy theorists, politicians, tycoons: all on the run to convince us of their ultimate truth. Alas, their thoughts become a matter of conversation, and sometimes they infiltrate our own beliefs. More often than not, we shall let go of rhetorical devices and embrace healthy criticism, for the sake of the world we live upon.
While thinking critically is already beneficial, let’s also keep in mind that we are a social species; and thus, we can foster critical thinking by communicating with others.