One of the presuppositions of NLP is that the meaning of a communication is in the way it is received. I posted a guest post from Dianne Lowther of Brilliant Minds on this presupposition back in June of this year, but think it is worth visiting again. It is that important.
But, in this post I am going to approach the topic from a different direction than Dianne. In her post, Dianne explained in some detail how this presupposition works. (I highly recommend reading her post. Just click on any one of the links). In this post, I am going to describe some specific ways to ensure that our messages are understood.
The role of empathy
This presupposition is a simple way of saying that we must take responsibility for how we attempt to communicate a message. When we wish to convey a particular message and it is misinterpreted, we often blame the recipient for misunderstanding. We get defensive and even blaming, and arguments happen.
Fundamentally, the reason for the conflict and misunderstanding that comes from “miscommunication,” indeed, the reason for miscommunication itself, is typically because empathy is lacking in both the transmitter and the receiver of the message.
When we communicate without empathy, we are transmitting without any regard or consideration to the needs of our intended receiver. Often times people will try and justify this lack of empathy by saying they prefer to “tell it like it is,” or to “be direct.” The true motive behind this desire to “be direct” is to force our message on somebody else, with little regard to how they may interpret or receive it. After all, if we really want to be understood, why would we not want to tailor our message to the recipient? This “being direct” is a fundamentally selfish way of communicating.
Likewise, it is impossible to accurately receive a message without empathy. Think about active listening as an example. It is simply not possibly to engage in active listening – to give somebody your total attention, and show genuine interest in what the other is trying to say, without empathy. In fact, a fundamental part of active listening is to connect with the sender, and repeat back his or her message in our own words to confirm our own understanding.
By definition, we cannot form such a connection and understanding without empathizing.
So why does the sender hold the primary responsibility for the way a message is received?
I’ve just said that lack of empathy on both sides of a communication is the reason why misunderstandings and the resulting conflicts happen. That being the case, you may be wondering why it is that the sender has the responsibility for ensuring his or her message is accurately received.
It simple. The sender starts the cycle, and understands (hopefully) the meaning of the message being conveyed. The receiver cannot possibly understand the meaning unless the sender conveys it. Therefore, the sender is the only person that can logically be responsible.
Furthermore, if the sender places his own need to validate himself, or to “be direct,” or “tell it like it is,” over the way a message is received or how it is interpreted, there can be no empathy conveyed, and the message will more than likely generate a violent (not in the physical sense… hopefully) reaction.
By following the guidelines below, we can communicate with empathy and in a nonviolent manner, and ensure our messages are understood:
Be aware of your objective. The sender is the only person who can know the meaning of any communication before it is sent. If the sender does not know what meaning she wants to convey, then how can the receiver possibly understand it?
It is also necessary that the sender understand “why” he wants to send the message in the first place. Is the intent constructive, or antagonistic? Antagonism rarely gets the results we want… at least in the long term. It is possible to communicate anger in ways that actually achieve positive results and get your needs met. Simply being argumentative damages relationships and ensures your real message – e.g. the need you want to have met – is not received.
Avoid vague language. This is not the same as “being direct” in the sense most people understand it. What avoiding vague language means is to speak plainly, but with empathy, and in a way your receiver can understand and accept.
As we’ve already learned, understanding without empathy is simply not possibly. When choosing your language you want to convey your needs, as well as concern for the receiver, otherwise your message will almost certainly create defensiveness in the recipient, and you are likely to simply end up in a conflict of competing needs.
Be honest about your needs. We all want to have their needs met. And when they aren’t met, we typically get resentful. As resentment builds, empathy departs. And (again) without empathy effective communication is simply not possible.
The time to communicate your needs is before this cycle sets in. It is best to be honest about your needs while you can also be empathic and sensitive to your recipient’s needs as well.
Communicate in the positive. Use positive language when communicating. By doing this you will find it much easier to convey empathy, and frame your message in a nonviolent manner.
Abolish “but” from your vocabulary. A simple yet powerful way to make your language more positive is by replacing any “but” statements with “and” statements. For example, notice the difference between,
“I really want to work this out with you, but I am concerned about being able to do so and still have my needs met.”
“I really want to work this out with you, and I am concerned about being able to do so and still have my needs met.”
The messages being sent are subtly different. The “but” statement implies an “either, or” situation. Either we work this out, or I get my needs met.
By replacing “but” with “and,” you imply that both conditions can be met; you just don’t know how…. yet.
Get feedback and confirmation. A great way to ensure the meaning of your message is actually being conveyed is to ask. Again, doing so with empathy will usually result in genuine attempts at understanding. Doing so without empathy results in conflict.
Request, don’t demand. We cannot force anybody to do what we want, at least not for the long term. However, when we request something from somebody else with empathy, we usually generate a genuine desire within them to help.
Even if they cannot do what we are asking, they will most likely work with us to find another way to meet our needs.
When we demand, we generate resentment and resistance, and rarely get our needs met.
You hopefully noticed that empathy is the key ingredient of successful communications, and that empathy must be present from the very beginning, in the message being communicated. Given this, it should also be obvious that the sender is the only person that can be responsible for the way his or her message is received.
A message delivered with empathy will show concern for the needs of the recipients as well as the senders. It will be crafted in a way that the recipient can understand. And the sender will clarify understanding, and if necessary, change the way the message is crafted to ensure understanding.