Communication is about closing the gap

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There was a wonderful scene in New York last month. A group of Black Lives Matter protestors turned up at a pro Donald Trump rally. After a tense period where the two sides confronted each other, one of the rally organisers invited the protestors on to the stage to give them a chance to speak.

And then a remarkable thing happened. The leader of the protestors spoke, people listened, and they realised that actually, both sides had a lot of things in common. Afterwards people were seen talking to each other, taking pictures together, shaking hands. There was clearly a mindset shift – a move from having fixed views of “the others’’ to being open to different perspectives, and possibilities.

Here was a perfect example of communication that gets through. Of people listening to each other, finding connection, and beginning to work on differences.

 

How often do we find that we fail to get our point across? Or that the people to whom we are speaking aren’t willing to listen?

Many clients tell me of their frustration at workplace disengagement, colleagues losing a sense of purpose, or clinging onto strongly held beliefs in the face of data to the contrary. There is a clear gap between their intent – the information they are trying to convey – and other people’s response to it.

The problem is that most of the time when speaking, we are on transmitting mode. However clearly we speak, however rational our points, we are simply sending out beams of information in much the same way a lighthouse sends out beams of light. And, just like lighthouses, we see others as objects bobbing on the ocean, and expect them to act rationally according to the information they receive. The reality is that people aren’t boats. People are driven far more by their emotions. These emotions drive beliefs and, therefore, determine how receptive people are to our ideas.

Good communication begins when we take time to consider the emotional needs of others. If we give time to reflecting on what people’s needs might be, then we can identify the gap between how we want people to think, feel or do different as a result of communicating, and what they are thinking or feeling now. Communication then becomes about closing this gap, about searching for the common ground, identifying and accepting where other people are, and using this as a starting place as you pull them towards your ideas. Instead of a lighthouse, you are a lifeboat – reaching out to other people, often at risk to yourself.

This was essentially how the leader of the Black Lives Matter spoke. It took courage to step onto the stage and face a sea of hostile faces. Early on he talked about “making America great again,” and then united both sides through talking about things they both shared such as American identify, love of country, dislike of corruption. Critically, he reframed the perception that Black Lives is “anti cop,” by saying that they were anti bad cop, in the same way that they are anti bad politician. By finding things everyone could agree on, he was able to connect with the audience, to close the gap between them and to shift the interaction from mutual distrust to one where people were able to discuss issues and opinions more openly and constructively.

 

To really get through then, it’s important to acknowledge and then seek to close the gap. Here are 5 things you should do.

1. Pause. Start by reflecting on what you want to achieve as a result of your communication. Be led by the impact you want to achieve.

2. Identify the gap. Think about the people you are communicating to. What are their emotional needs? What’s on their minds, and how would you feel in a similar situation?

3. Find the common ground. A shared experience or an idea you all agree on. Use language like us, we and together to promote a cooperation and reduce antagonism.

4. Create images in people’s minds. Use stories, personal accounts of coming through difficult times, disputes, failure. Focus on your emotions at the time. It is these images that will drive the emotional reaction. It is the emotional reaction that will drive the shift in belief.

5. Listen. Now you have connected with people, you have also created space for people to debate and share alternative perspectives. Do not close this down, but encourage more discussion. It is this discussion that will be the genesis of new ideas and solutions. Make sure you stay curious, ask questions and explore ideas. Stay away from “me too” conversations where you try to switch the focus back to you.