Recently my son decided that he wanted to change a class in his junior high schedule. My wife and son went to pay a visit to the school counselor. During the meeting, the counselor asked him why he wanted to change to a different science teacher. He said, “Well, most of the time I have a difficult time focusing, which makes the teacher really hard to understand.” To this the counselor replied, “What you really mean is that your teacher is boring and you can’t stay awake. Is that right?” He responded, “Well I didn’t say exactly that.” Unfortunately for him, she did not allow him to change teachers.
When my wife told me this story, I thought that perhaps we were doing something right, and I was impressed that he had enough presence of mind to think about how to frame a message in a way that was more respectful and that might lead to a positive outcome.
Consider the power of words in your message. Dr. Albert Mehrabian taught that when talking about your feelings or attitudes, only 7 % of your message comes from the words that you use. He also proposed that your tone accounts for 38% and body language or nonverbal behavior accounts for the remaining 55% of meaning in your message.
However, it would be a broad generalization to assume that all messages would be attributable to the same percentages. Once someone asked me, “How do you know when your message was absolutely and perfectly clear?” To which I responded, “When I am angry.” My confidence in my response is based on the perfect alignment of my words, feelings, and actions when that emotion is high. Unfortunately, speaking to people in a state of high or “hot” emotion does not create a rational conversation, nor can we trust the accuracy of what the other person is hearing or what they will say. When we are delivering a message, we often fail to take into account the context in which that message is being received.
Words are powerful tools for inspiring, uplifting, enlightening, informing, motivating, and describing any number of situations. One of the most powerful functions of words is the picture or context that they create for the listener. For example, if you had heard that a certain person whom you had never met was self-centered, when you finally did meet that person, you would likely see everything that he or she did as evidence of their self-centeredness. Unless you consciously assessed your own interpretations or judgments of that individual's behavior, you would probably never revise your opinion of that character trait. Here is an example of this principle in action: Do you remember when President Bill Clinton told the public emphatically that he "did not have sex with that woman"? A psychologist once told me that no matter what evidence was offered later, a large number of Americans refused to believe anything contrary to what they initially thought of his statement.
If you want the message that you deliver to have a positive impact, ask yourself the following questions that will help you consider the context of the message and the person to whom you are speaking:
What is the topic to be discussed?
Obviously, the best way to deliver your message depends upon the topic. Is this a search for understanding? Do you need to provide constructive or negative feedback? Are you simply looking for more information on an issue? Is this a very sensitive subject with legal ramifications that need to be discussed? Be clear about the topic and determine the best way to approach the message you want to deliver.
What is the purpose of the conversation?
Specifically identifying your purpose allows you to pinpoint what you would like the person to do. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, you likely won't be satisfied with what you achieve. You have to know what end result you are aiming for if you expect to communicate clearly.
Who is this person?
What do you know about the person in the context of the subject to be discussed? Do they listen and ask clarifying questions? Do they become emotional or upset when their performance is called into question? Do you know how to defuse strong emotional reactions? Does this person value facts and data, or do they think more in terms of relationships with others? Does this person appreciate candor and getting to the point right away, or will you need to soften your approach? What position do they hold? Understanding who the person is and how they have responded to similar conversations in the past will help you to craft a message that they will hear.
What is the current status of your relationship?
You might even ask yourself how much trust currently exists in your relationship with them, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10. In situations where you have a strong or positive relationship one in which the person is confident that you care about them both as a person and a professional, you can deliver a strong message, and they are less likely to take what you have to say personally. Realize, however, that many people simply take everything personally, simply as a matter of their style. But individual style notwithstanding, consider the strength of your relationship as you plan how best to deliver your message.
What judgments do you hold or what assumptions are you making?
Before holding any difficult conversation, it is important for you to surface and assess the judgments or assumptions that you hold about the person. For example, if you think that a person is a “jerk,” you are likely to treat them in such a way that your behavior will elicit their “jerkiness.” You might be surprised to know that we often influence people to show up in a certain way simply by the way we treat them. Identify your negative thinking and suspend it to make your conversation be more successful.
What are the data in the current situation?
Your thinking is based on the data, observation, or evidence that you have experienced. Once you have surfaced your thinking, look for evidence that supports your thinking. For example, if you repeatedly accuse a person of being lazy, but you cannot identify any data that would logically lead you to that conclusion, then you re-evaluate the conversation that you need to hold. After all, the data becomes the justification for what the person needs to change. If you can’t point to a specific behavior that you want them to improve, then they will not know what to change.
What is your plan for improving the situation?
It is always best if the person comes up with their own plan for improving or changing a current situation that is not working. Assist them in doing this by asking them what they did, what they might do differently going forward, or where they are stuck in the process of trying to identify a viable solution. If they struggle to identify a plan, you want to be prepared by taking a moment prior to the conversation to identify a possible plan of attack. That way you can offer suggestions to help them create a plan that will work for them and you.
These questions should help you consider the words that you will use as you craft your message in preparation for the difficult conversation that you need to hold. Obviously, not all conversations are difficult, but if the potential is there for the conversation to go awry, you need to slow down, reflect on these questions, and identify the best way to deliver the message you really want to give. Taking a moment to do so will improve the message that you deliver and the results you achieve.