New Manager

Listening with purpose

Ashu Khanna | Updated on September 05, 2011

Weigh your words: However simple it may seem, one lifetime is sometimes not enough to master communication skills.

Thoughts on improving the quality of communication within an organisation.

“The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” George Bernard Shaw.

Ineffective communication is amongst the most common coaching issues that I deal with in my interactions with executives. During the course of coaching a group of senior executives, the biggest gap that I observed was the ‘lack of open communication'. The CEO expected his team to be aligned with the strategy, the team thought it had understood right and saw no reason to seek clarifications. Sadly, neither took the initiative to ‘ask'. What held them back was not their intentions because, obviously, each wanted to perform and succeed, but their ‘assumptions'.

Communication is not just the ability to speak in a dialect or language. It involves the flow of information, ideas, concepts and thoughts from one person to another. However simple it may seem, yet, one lifetime is sometimes not enough to master this skill. All relationships hinge on our ability to say the right words at the right time.

“Wisdom is not in words; Wisdom is meaning within words,” said Khalil Gibran.

Thoughts colour our words

Our language tends to alter with our emotions. Our tone is loud and words harsh when we are angry or frustrated, our tone is weak and words unclear when we are scared or uncertain. Hence, it is our thoughts that dominate our words and expressions. To understand the true meaning of what is being said, it is essential to focus on the underlying emotions rather than just the words.

We all have an in-built system or antenna to perceive and interpret information, commonly known as the mind. This perception mechanism or filter is further influenced by factors such as the environment, country, culture, family background and schooling. A combination of the perception mechanism and external influences contribute to shaping the personality of an individual.

Our thoughts arise from our ‘perception filter' and, hence, any communication sent or received is coloured by this filter. For instance, a senior executive who had progressed over the years with technical expertise was not always clear with instructions or deadlines for the work to be done by his subordinates.

Consequently, there was often a last-minute scramble and the executive had to dive in to manage quality. Once the executive became aware about this omission, there was a significant change in his style of delegation and time management, making it easier for the team as a whole.

I have also observed that in some traditional Indian business families, the entrepreneur who has established the business may have a need to be in control and nurture a sense of superiority. The need to be right, be “ME” and in control — in short, here the ego controls or blocks communication.

Consequently, people with an abundance of experience and knowledge have a tendency to download information and present possible solutions. How can the next level develop freely and present new ideas unless they are given the opportunity to explore freely?

At the managerial level, it is often taken for granted that senior executives know all about communicating with their teams. Communication skills are rarely one of the key competencies taught or measured by organisations. In the course of our lives, a lot of time and energy is spent in explaining, justifying, clarifying and repeating our words.

What is it that repeatedly causes this disarray in our lives? Are our intentions misplaced, or are we simply careless and ignorant?

Behavioural indicators

Awareness of behaviour is critical to open new pathways for effective communication. Every person is keen on getting ahead in life and, above all, wants to be understood. Some just don't know the “how”.

Did you know that we speak 100 to 175 words per minute (WPM) but can listen intelligently to nearly 600 to 800 WPM. Since only a part of our mind is paying attention, it is easy to go into mind drift — thinking about other things while listening to someone. Whilst listening, we pre-judge and conclude the meaning of the words spoken or we interrupt before a person completes his sentence or our prejudices about a person or situation, our fears about others and ourselves interfere and the verdict is read.

The emotional need to ‘preserve' our image creates a barrier in our communication — the need to feel important, to prove ourselves, to be right, to be acknowledged, to tell, to share or unload our worries, to feel powerful and in control. These needs dominate communication and we are unable to “just be” with another person or ‘enter the other person's world'.

Active listening

What we truly require is active listening — which involves listening with a purpose. It may be to gain information, obtain directions, understand others, solve problems, share interest, see how another person feels and show support, among others.

It requires that a person attentively listens to the words as well as the feelings of the other to gain an understanding. The listener needs to keep his ego, fears and biases aside and just listen.

It is no doubt difficult since our mind is always so cluttered, but through effort and discipline, one can make an effort to be quiet while listening and speak only if necessary. Strangely, people often speak as if there is a compulsive need to respond. Many a time the other person may simply want to share his or her thoughts and may not be looking for advice, opinions or solutions. After all, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. When we go against nature's principle, we suffer.

(The writer is an executive coach and leadership development consultant.)

Published on September 04, 2011

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