Aaron slowly made his way to his desk, his early-morning coffee sloshing over the rim of the cup. Fortunately, it missed the front of his favorite T-shirt. He didn’t notice. Instead, his eyes fixated on the floor as he mulled over his sister’s visit the night before. For some reason, she had decided to audit his lifestyle.
“All you do is work!” she said, throwing up her hands in disgust. “Look around this apartment. There’s no sign of life. The food should be carbon-dated, the furniture has more lint than fabric and the bathroom needs a hazmat sign!”
Aaron liked his life. He managed the technology department of a product development firm. His expertise in designing the underlying technology for the firm’s products made him indispensable. It also afforded him independence. While he had friends in the company, he didn’t have to spend time with people he disliked. He particularly had no patience for people who didn’t understand technology.
That happy state was about to end. Last week, Aaron’s manager informed him that he could not promote him to director unless he improved his internal customer relationships. This news depressed him.
Right now, however, he was thinking about his sister. Her criticism stung, and he had no idea what to do about it.
Aaron’s rumination stopped abruptly. Before him stood Marsha, the firm’s driven product manager. She regarded him with a big, insincere smile. She wanted something. Marsha definitely resided on his “do not like” list. He thought she was stupid, because after four years at the company, she still didn’t understand its technology.
Marsha personified ambition, always working to cultivate political allies. She did well in her job, except when it came to technology. Last week, she could not explain to the executive team why a feature for the new Project 5A failed. The CEO, who had championed her career, sent her back to find a satisfactory explanation. She felt humiliated.
She also felt and looked exhausted, having stayed up the previous night caring for two sick children. She found dealing with Aaron challenging at the best of times. Today, with the combined pressure of reforming her reputation with the executive team and fatigue, talking with him would rival a root canal.
“Hi!” said she, mustering up her perky best.
Aaron grunted something that sounded like, “Hi.”
“I guess you heard about the Project 5A problem.”
He looked at her warily. “One might say so. I heard they didn’t install the technology right.”
The smile dissolved. “‘They?’ Aren’t you ‘Technology’?”
Aaron glanced up at the ceiling, then back down at Marsha. “Tech invents, and you install what we create. It’s up to you to do that correctly.”
“What? How are we supposed to know how to do that? That’s not our training!”
“It would be, if you bothered to attend our training sessions,” came the retort.
The “conversation” deteriorated from there.
This scene between Aaron and Marsha exemplifies poor communication. Neither person asked, heard or took any time to learn what the other needed. They merely widened the gap between them.
Communication succeeds when people connect on ideas, information or feelings and then arrive at a shared understanding. They might not agree on everything, but they learn enough about each other to unite on an idea.
Unclogging the Communication Channel: Three Influencing Factors
Connection occurs when people clear out the white noise that prevents them from gathering important information about each other. Three factors influence how well they do:
Needs provide motivational drivers. They are personal and cover a range of possibilities, including a need for power, a promotion, acknowledgement, friendship or technical knowledge. When people know their driver, it lends focus and a reminder of why they are in the room.
Perceptions arise from what a person’s five senses detect and what might inhibit them. For example, a noisy room could make it difficult to hear words or vocal tone. People’s history with each other can also impact perceptions. If someone has had a negative experience with another person, he or she might interpret a frown as hostile rather than concentrating.
- Emotional and Physical State
Everyone brings their moods to a conversation. A person who is feeling depressed would struggle with being positive. Physical state also has an impact; a cold or a headache can easily dampen one’s enthusiasm.
Unclogging Your Communication Channel: Five Strategies
To unclog the channel to learn and connect with another person, here are some strategies for navigating the three influencing factors:
- Know What You Need
Write down what you need, and then use it to organize your thoughts. Aaron and Marsha each needed something from the other. Aaron had to improve his relationship with Marsha to win a promotion. Marsha needed Aaron’s technical knowledge to restore her credibility with the executive team. Awareness of their respective needs would have provided the motivation to interact more constructively.
- Not Feeling Well? Postpone.
Marsha was exhausted from a long night caring for children. If she had delayed talking with Aaron until she felt more rested, she might have been less reactive.
- Know Your Shared History
If you have had a bad experience with a person that could color your current perceptions of them, think about how the issue evolved, your contribution to it and whether you can move past it to advance your cause. Aaron disrespected Marsha for not knowing technology, but he most likely had not made any extra effort to offer her training. Had he done so, she might have trusted him more, and he might have disliked her less.
- Remember That Every Conversation Has Two Sides
Both parties bring their own channel-clogging influences. If Aaron had noticed that Marsha looked tired, he might have asked her how she was doing. Had Marsha paid attention to Aaron’s preoccupation when she first saw him, she could have asked how he was doing before demanding help. Given their rocky relationship, these simple questions might have felt risky, but noticing invites connection. It signifies the other person matters.
- Accept That You Won’t Know Everything
There are things people will never admit to you but that nevertheless will influence the conversation. Given the distrust between Aaron and Marsha, Aaron probably would not reveal to her the impact of his sister’s comments on his emotional state, no matter what Marsha asked. Still, Marsha should have not personalized his mood but, rather, respected it by modulating her behavior.
Communication requires knowledge and compassion. Learning what influences both you and the people you connect with pays endless dividends.