What outcome do I want? It seems obvious, but in reality it’s unusual that we ask this question. Often we react to what other people are saying, to our own emotions, or to a particular situation. But those reactions lead to haphazard outcomes. Start by thinking about the outcome you’re aiming for, and then respond in a way that will achieve that outcome. In Robert and Howard’s situation, the outcomes they wanted were very similar: to be connected, to be supported, to be included. Yet their reactions to each other brought them the exact opposite: disconnection.
What should I communicate to achieve that outcome? Once you know your outcome, identifying what you want to say is much easier. If I want to be closer to someone, “I’m hurt that you didn’t include me” is clearly a better choice than “I can’t believe you didn’t include me!” That small word difference represents a huge shift in meaning. Of course, for many of us it’s emotionally much easier to say “I’m angry” than to say “I’m hurt.” One feels powerful, the other vulnerable. This is one reason why emotional courage is so critical to being an effective communicator and a powerful leader.
How should I communicate to achieve that outcome? Your goal here should be to increase your chances of being heard. So instead of considering how you can most clearly articulate your point, think about how you can predispose the other person to listen. Ironically, you don’t do this by speaking at all. Just listen. Be curious and ask questions. Recap what you’re hearing. Then, before sharing your perspective, ask if you’ve understood the other person’s. If not, ask what you missed. If you hear a yes, ask, “Can I share my perspective?” A yes to this last question is an agreement to listen. And since you just gave a great example of listening, the other person is far more likely to return the favor.
When should I communicate to achieve that outcome? For many of us communication is a gut reaction. Robert shot off his text the moment he heard he had been left out. Howard immediately responded with his own text in reaction to Robert’s. Neither one of them paused or were thoughtful about when they should communicate. The rule here is simple: Don’t communicate just because you feel like it. Communicate when you are most likely to be received well. Ask yourself when you are most likely to approach the communication with curiosity, compassion, and clarity, and when the other person is likely to be generous and calm.
The problem with most communication is that it’s easy. Anyone can thoughtlessly type out a 20-second text or a three-sentence email. But communication is a direct line into a complex web of emotion that explodes easily. Robert and Howard found that out the hard way.
Remember, an explosion can be avoided with a few simple questions that, in most cases, take just seconds to answer.
*Names and some small details changed to protect identities.
Cited on Harvard Business Review