Getting to Yes
By Tina B. Tessina on August 25, 2012
The average person pays more attention to what she's saying or thinking about than what she is hearing, or how her words are "landing" on the other person. This self-involvement gets worse during an argument. You can become a much more effective communicator by using "attentive speaking" a simple and highly effective technique that will help you pay attention to how well you're communicating, whether it's with your partner, your children, or extended family, or co-workers.
"How am I supposed to know what he (she) wants?" is probably the most worried about question in relationships. Most people don't want to be rejected, criticized or otherwise get the results of guessing wrong about what someone else wants. Most of us want a "yes" answer when we ask a question, so we want to ask the right question, at the right time, from the right person. The trouble is, how are we supposed to know what's right?
Since most of our interaction happens through conversation, here's a relatively simple technique that you can use with great success anytime the results of your interaction with someone really count. I call it "attentive speaking", and what it's really about is paying attention and not guessing about what the other person is thinking. No matter when you're talking to other members of your family, your children or your spouse, using attentive speaking will help you reach an agreement.
Guidelines for Attentive Speaking
Attentive speaking simply means paying attention, not only to what you are saying, but also to how your partner is receiving it. If you watch carefully when you want to get a point across, your partner's facial expression, body movements, and posture all will provide clues (looking interested, fidgeting, looking bored, eyes wandering, attempting to interrupt, facial expressions of anger or confusion, or a blank, empty stare) to help you know whether you are being understood. By using the following steps, you can learn to observe your partner as he or she is listening to you, and see whether you are successfully communicating what you want your partner to hear, without any verbal communication from your partner. This is especially effective if your partner:
- is not very talkative;
- thinks disagreeing, or objecting will "hurt your feelings";
- is the unemotional, strong, silent type;
- is easily overwhelmed in a discussion; or
- is passive, depressed, or withdrawn.
Sometimes, such partners are reluctant to let you know if they have a negative reaction to what you are saying. If your partner is not receiving what you are saying as you intended, and you persist in talking without understanding your partner's reaction, your partner could become more and more upset by what you are saying, stop listening, get very confused, mentally object or silently argue with you, or not want to be talked to at all. If you don't use attentive speaking to see the clues, you can be chattering blithely along, and suddenly your partner will react with anger, misunderstand you or just not be interested in listening any more, and all your efforts to communicate are wasted. By using guidelines that follow, you can figure out when you aren't communicating well or getting the reaction you want.
Using attentive speaking will help you:
- Avoid overwhelming your partner with too much information at once, (because you will notice when he or she looks overwhelmed, bored or distracted)
- Keep your partner's interest in what you have to say, (by teaching you how to ask a question when you see your partner's attention slipping away)
- Understand when what you say is misunderstood, (by observing facial expressions and noticing when they're different than what you expect)
- Gauge your partner's reaction when he or she doesn't say anything (by facial expressions, body language and attentiveness)
- tell when your partner is too distracted, stressed or upset to really hear what you're saying (by facial expressions, body language and attentiveness)
These steps will help you learn to speak attentively.
- Watch your listener. When it is important to you to communicate effectively, be careful not to get so engrossed in what you are saying that you forget to watch your partner. Keep your eyes on your partner's face and body, which will let your partner know you care if her or she hears you, increase your partner's tendency to make eye contact with you, and therefore cause him or her to listen more carefully.
- Look for clues in your partner's facial expression (a smile, a frown, a glassy eyed stare) body position (upright and alert, slumped and sullen, turned away from you and inattentive) and movements (leaning toward you, pulling away from you, fidgeting, restlessness). For example, if you say "I love you" and you observe that your partner turns away and looks out the window, you are getting clues that you weren't received the way you wanted to be. Either your partner is too distracted to hear you, or he or she is having a problem with what you said.
- Ask, don't guess. If you get a response that seems unusual or inappropriate to what you said, (you think you're giving a complement, and your partner looks confused, hurt or angry; or you think you're stating objective facts and your partner looks like he or she disagrees; you're angry, but your partner is smiling) ask a gentle question for example, "I thought I was giving you a complement, but you look annoyed. Did I say something wrong?" or, "Gee, I thought you'd be happy to hear this but you look upset. Please tell me what you're thinking." Or, "I'm angry about what you just said, but you're smiling. Did I misunderstand you?" Or, just "Do you agree?"
- Don't talk too long. If your partner becomes fidgety or looks off into space as you talk, either what you're saying is emotionally uncomfortable, the time is not good for talking (business pressures, stress, the ball game is on), your partner is bored or you've been talking too long. (If you think you've been talking too long or your partner is bored, invite him or her to comment: "what do you think?" or "Do you see it the same way?" or perhaps "Am I talking too much (or too fast)?" If you think it's a bad time, just ask: "You look distracted. Is this a good time to talk about this?" (If it is a bad time, then try again at a different time.))
- Look for confusion. When you're paying attention as you speak, incomprehension and confusion are also easy to spot. If your partner begins to have a blank or glassy-eyed look, or looks worried or confused, you may be putting out too many ideas all at once, or you may not be explaining your thoughts clearly enough. Again, ask a question: "Am I making sense to you?" "Am I going too fast?" or, "Do you have any questions?" Sometimes, just a pause in what you are saying will give your partner the room he or she needs to ask a question and get his or her confusion cleared up.
- Don't blame. Blaming your listener (for example, by insisting that he or she just isn't paying enough attention) will only exacerbate the problem. Instead, ask a question, such as "I don't think I'm explaining this clearly. Have I lost you?" Or, "Am I bringing up too many things at once?" Phrasing the questions to show that you're looking for ways to improve your style and clarity invites cooperation and encourages teamwork.
By using the above guidelines, you can find out immediately, as you are speaking, if you are communicating well with your partner. If you see signs of confusion or trouble, you can put things back on track quite easily, whether you're speaking to your partner, a child, or anyone else.
When you and your partner know how to hear and understand each other, you'll find that any struggle can be solved. No matter what the issue is, it is never more important than keeping your partnership healthy and productive. As long as the two of you are a functioning team who can work together to solve problems and resolve issues, you'll be able to deal with whatever comes along as the years go by.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.
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