Sunday, September 25, 2016

Inaccurate Assumptions Can Ruin the Best Communication Skills

A cartoon chemist is pictured after his experiment back-fired

Communication skills training teaches us about the danger of assuming we know what another person is thinking. Class participants learn about how to listen better and how to reflect back to check that they have heard correctly. But it would help to understand why good listening is so difficult and yet so important to effective communication.

Have you heard of the term “mentalizing”? It is a form of understanding and interpreting others’ behavior in terms of our own beliefs, feelings, needs and goals.  We are always, and quite naturally, trying to figure out why a person is acting a certain way. Mentalizing involves assumptions that may or may not be true and may or may not backfire. And this can happen in our personal as well as our professional communications.

In a recent communication skills training program, participants imagined meeting a friend for lunch who said they “love your new red coat.” Some participants could not just accept the compliment and move on. No, they could not help themselves from wondering why the friend would say such a thing…are they envious, honest, or flattering with an ulterior motive? They also discussed a situation at work where a manager asks how much time it took to complete a report. Some wondered if the manager felt it took too long or too short or if it was done well or poorly. 

It is natural to try to imagine the motivations behind what a person says or does. But very often, we are wrong. And it’s all because of our false assumptions. Here, based upon  communication skills training research, is how to listen better by reducing our mentalizing and thus avoiding inaccuracies that lead us astray and hamper effective communication:

  1. Try to start with a clean slate.
    Your assumptions about people are closely connected to your feelings for them. See if you can erase those feelings and get closer to a more rational approach to the interaction. Think through what you assume are their motivations and their goals. Are you sure this is something you can support with evidence?
  2. Get rid of the self-talk.
    Understanding that mentalizing relies upon the way you feel about yourself as well as how you feel about others, try to eliminate the internal self-evaluation. If you have negative self-talk, you are likely to project that attitude on others. 
  3. Get the facts.
    Once you have achieved a relatively neutral state, try to find out what they truly want and what actually motivates them in the conversation.  Ask questions from a perspective of really trying to understand where they are coming from.

These communication skills training tips will help you reach a higher level of communication and influence based more on rationality than gut feel. 


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