Effective Communication: Using Context

This is advice we often hear: “When you are actively listening, give the speaker feedback so they know you hear them.” There are many variations on this advice. Sometimes experts tells us to say, “What I hear you saying is…” or ask “Is this the point you are making…?”

In his book Why Didn’t You Say that in the First Place? Richard Heyman tells us why doing this is important. He also provides two suggestions about giving feedback while helping to clarify the conversation. Giving feedback is important, Heyman says, because understanding is all about shared context. Often times we assume we know what a speaker is saying. But that can be dangerous because we may be hearing in a context different from what the speaker is saying. We need to clarify the context. Here is a humorous example from his book that underscores the point:

“Physician: ‘Have you ever had a history of cardiac arrest in your family?’

Patient: We never had no trouble with the police.

Physician: How about vericose veins?

Patient: Well, I have veins, but I don’t know if they’re close or not.'” (Page 26)

Here are two concrete ways to give feedback (and a few thoughts about them): First, Heyman suggests paraphrasing. In this example, a listener might say “If I hear you right,…” then cast the thought in language that makes sense to the listener. If this paraphrase misses the point (as it very likely will!) The listener can try again, beginning with “Oh, I see. Is this what you meant?”

This is certainly a tried and true approach to active listening. Although it is frequently recommended, often used, and can be effective, paraphrasing requires skill and practice. One important thing about paraphrasing is that the listener must be sincere. Otherwise, the speaker may very quickly decide that something manipulative is going on.

Second, Heyman suggests telling a story. Everyone can remember a time when they have tried to explain something only to have the listener say “Oh, that reminds me of a time when something just like that happened.” But often the listener proceeds to tell a story that is almost unrelated to the point. When we are telling a story in response to a speaker we want to listen so carefully that we are able to pick out the two or three main points the speaker is making before choosing an anecdote that addresses those points.

Storytelling can clarify the context of the conversation and build a bond between the speaker and listener. But stories should be carefully chosen because we are all too familiar with stories that are merely self-serving and do little to clarify the context. In some instances irrelevant stories might actually offend.

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