Understanding communicating and listening
"You will have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want your way, and instead help others to get what they want their way."This chapter contains detailed reviews of major communicators: king, Kennedy, Churchill, and many others.
Communication is about nothing but effect. So we start and end by understanding our audience, knowing what the desired end result is, what we are trying to achieve. And we plan our communication, the language we use, the timing, the highs and lows, the length, the sound and, above all, the imagery, so that we achieve the effect we want in the perception of our audiences. We plan, so that we speak in a way they will hear, will see, will feel.
So many people have a fear of public speaking; so many are useless at simple day–to–day communications. All too often the issue lies in our failure / refusal to focus on the thinking and reaction of the audience. We are blinkered by what we are trying to say, rather than looking at how to communicate to the audience so that they will both want to understand and be eager to respond as we want them to.
Re–reading the comments on King’s famous 1963 speech, it’s not so difficult to see the recipe that made his special alchemy so brilliant. There’s no magic or mystery. This is no spur–of–the–moment success; on the contrary, as we shall see, it was the creation of deliberate care, practice and judgement. So could you do this too? Let’s look more closely at the ingredients, which of them could you use too?
- Use images and word pictures;
- Use examples people can relate to;
- Talk about traditional values;
- Appeal to common bonds;
- Get to know your audience;
- Use repetition;
- Be positive and hopeful;
- Shift from "I" to "we";
- Speak with passion and emotion;
- Have personal conviction about the dream.
Working in both the US and the UK, I am familiar with the bible–belt proselytising of Middle America – there are many daily TV channels devoted to vivid and declamatory gospel speakers in this vein. For audiences in the far more conservative and emotionally reserved UK, Martin Luther King’s great speech can sound just too much. But King’s words were not directed at conservative Middle England, instead at rousing an ultimately Christian conscience that had lain dormant for far too long in freedom–loving America – that, if all men are free and equal, then they should be treated and respected that way. And to do this, King chose to use language that both personified the committed Christianity of his ill–treated people and also expressed the poetry and drama within their souls. This was a speech where language, imagery and a musical, almost operatic, style took the identity of black America onto the steps of Washington DC and asked for attention.
Two more observations about this speech. The first is that this was no off–the–cuff piece of inspiration. Instead it was the culmination of years of practice – Martin Luther King was already one of America’s greatest preachers. It was, furthermore, the result itself of repeated rehearsal and trial. In the weeks leading up to his defining moment in Washington, King had given the speech in an ever–more refined and consolidated form on more than twenty occasions to increasingly ecstatic live audiences. King’s great speech was practiced, rehearsed and honed.
The second point is to emphasise the importance of King’s use of imagery and words. "I have a dream" itself sets the tone immediately for vision and imagination, but he then anchors the concepts with such vivid expressions as:
- "red hills of Georgia"
- "sitting down together at the table of brotherhood"
- "a desert state swelling"
- "an oasis of freedom" and so on.
Such tangible imagery matters.
What does that mean for executives? "Business leaders" explain the researchers "tend to think in terms of bottom–line goals, like boosting revenues or profits. But they need to speak about their goals in terms that will make a positive difference in the world". Few people will be inspired by a rallying cry to increase profits, for instance, but they will be energised by a vision of changing the way people stay in touch or the way children are taught. If you can see a goal – if you can touch, feel and smell it – it seems more real.
So, before speaking, leaders should ask themselves "What difference will it make if we’re successful in reaching our bottom–line goal?", "What is the difference I am trying to bring about with my speech, letter, email?", and, in particular, "How will the audience feel this?". If they can communicate that difference with clear, vivid images, they’ll be much more likely to capture the hearts and minds of their followers.
Here is a list of Image versus Concept words:
Communicating excellently is about the audience achieving excellent understanding – it takes care, practice and, above all, it needs the speaker to empathise with his audience, and to use their vocabulary and their beliefs. Today, emails have so speeded and filled our lives that CEOs frequently go into meetings, having spent little or no time thinking about their audience. E mails are sent with no sensitivity to how the words may be received the other end.
Martin Luther King and Kennedy were giving very public speeches. Let’s look a little more closely at the technique. In doing so they were using a wide palette of imagery. Look back at the various styles of King’s words:
- Feeling: "I have a dream", "sweltering", "join hands"
- Seeing: "red hills", "valley", "rough place".
- Hearing: "let freedom ring", "the beautiful symphony of brotherhood". In doing so, King is doing two things at once. First of all he is making concepts concrete. "All people should be treated equally" becomes "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers". Secondly he is designing his imagery to match the gamut of different ways individuals in his audience may take in meaning.
- For some it will be visual – they will see what he is saying – little communicates more effectively than a diagram.
- For others it will be in terms of sound – they will be singing from the same hymn sheet, it will ring their chimes – they will hear what is said;
- For yet others their understanding will be mostly in terms of sensory or feeling imagery. They will feel the desert state of Mississippi "sweltering" with the heat of injustice, and they will register particularly the Alabama governor’s lips "dripping" with words of nullification. The great speakers intuitively reach out to their audiences by deploying their imagery to match the potential full range of their audience. Such a technique is fundamental to successful communication with smaller groups, with a team and it is fundamental to dealing one to one. The technique is also the cornerstone of learning the power of listening, learning how to listen and how to use listening. Neuro–linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of thinking, behaviour and language patterns to help us understand each other and communicate in a way that consciously mirrors each other’s way of thinking. Listening profoundly is the first essential of all successful adult relationships.
At its heart lies the conviction articulated by Covey "seek first to understand – then to be understood".
The essence of management, of leadership, is building rapport, creating and developing a sympathetic empathy between each other. What we think about is what we feel. That, over time, creates our reaction, attitudes and habits – and so a pattern is created. And this individual pattern is evidenced, not just in the actions we take; it is anticipated and reinforced by the way we use words, and by the way we use our body. But, and this is the important bit, it is the role of listening to take ourselves out of our own minds, to "disassociate" ourselves from our own knee–jerk emotion and reaction, and to seek to climb into the other person’s mind. Its purpose is to be able to find out how and why they operate as they do. And we can do this at varying levels of inquiry :
Level 1: Hearing the words and images they use, so that we can use language that reflects this, and makes our intended meaning more accessible for them.
Level 2: Being aware of body language, and using it to support and emphasise the messages we are sending.
Level 3: Recognising how language can reveal inner mental attitudes, and dealing with the filters these mindsets create, dealing with how they can distort perceptions and inhibit understanding.
Level 4: Using disassociated and precise language to deal with "mixed–up" thinking.
Level 5: Using language to reformat, and so deal with confrontation positively.
Level 6: Helping people to explore themselves, by usinglanguage that has been cleaned of our own perception and meaning.
This chapter has set out how to communicate and how to listen. It can be summed up in the line "seek first to understand, before trying to be understood".
We have seen how great speakers (Martin Luther King) use a broad array of images that can resonate with their audience. They want to share a common picture, to sing the same song, and to share the same feelings. We have seen how great presidents (Kennedy) are helped by using graphic imagery. We have then seen how, if we listen to the language of our colleagues, we can match their imagery, just like matching a foreign language. Of no less importance, we can start to pick up important clues as to how they are feeling (body language), and to how their use of language shows how they are constrained by their thinking (via filters).
We can use that to untangle their mixed–up thinking, to deal with confrontation, to help cope with stress, and create trust. Finally we have described the use of clean language, uncluttered by our meaning and our imagery, to help vulnerable people cope and then come through their crisis – believe me, there are few more fulfilling moments for leaders than doing that.