Monday, April 6, 2009

Communication Challenges and Benevolent Assumptions: The Root of Interpersonal Conflict and Resolution

In my experience of observing people interact, listening to them argue, and observing relationships develop and deteriorate at all levels of business I believe that 99% of interpersonal conflict occurs because of truly basic miscommunication issues and because people fail to carry benevolent assumptions about the people they are interacting with.

Basic miscommunication occurs because most people are really poor listeners and because of the inadequacy of any language to accurately represent what we are trying to communicate. Have you ever been speaking to someone or to a group of people and someone responds with a complete non-sequiter? People are so distracted and overextended these days that their minds are naturally wandering to all of the things that they need to take care of while you are speaking. Also some people are not even trying to listen, they are just waiting to say what is on their mind.

Listening requires intense active effort to stay focused and to follow a person’s line of thinking and to let them finish their thought to completion. Even harder is listening to another person follow-up and then to be able to hold both thoughts in your mind and compare them. Being a good facilitator requires exactly this effort and ability. Practice it the next time you are at work and repeat back to both people the summary of what you just heard by comparing the thoughts from both people. On many occasions you will find that the second speaker wasn’t even listening to the first person and is off on a tangent. Can you bring the conversation back to the point by guiding the conversation back to the original topic?

On other occasions, and not infrequently, you will find the second speaker claiming to disagree with the first person’s comments but often the claimed disagreement is only because the second person did not completely hear out or grasp the first speaker’s message. This only compounds when the first speaker makes the same mistake regarding the second speaker’s comments. And then the discussion is headed nowhere very fast. This is the major problem with meetings today. People do not listen to each other and they do not have the discipline or skills to keep conversations focused on the issues at hand.

Unfortunately both the speaker and listener are at fault – the listener because he failed to actively listen and stay on track, the speaker because he does not have the ability to respond and guide the conversation back on track. Both are critical skills for success in business and relationships. Facilitation is a learned skill and requires both intelligence, patience, subtlety, and directness. Active listening is simple: let go of all of your own thoughts and focus only on what the speaker is saying, nothing else.

To do this successfully actually requires another key skill that many people lack but once accomplished will bring you incredible success in business and relationships: the ability to suspend disbelief and to accept the possibility that you are wrong. Poor listeners are not able to do this because they are too focused on defending their own position and trying to figure out how they are going to rebut or refute what the speaker is saying.

This happens all of the time in business when two people are arguing and they refuse to just stop and listen and to imagine how the other person’s point of view might be correct. The quicker that both people can do this the quicker they can resolve their disagreements. In fact, they cannot resolve their difference until this happens. When this happens at work I always insist that each person articulate the other person’s point of view and how that point of view could be correct.

Arguments and disagreements can still ensue, but everyone arguing has the obligation to understand the other person’s point of view before they can argue their own point of view. This leads to much quicker and amicable resolutions and makes sure that the differences are based on true differences in values, priorities, or strategy rather than misunderstandings, misperceptions, or a basic failure to listen.

Compounding people’s inability to listen is that even when people are actively listening the spoken language is a very poor communication vehicle for ideas both simple and complex. How many times have you tried to communicate something and the message is just not getting across? Language is imperfect and subject to so many literal and subjective meanings that by its very nature language makes it difficult to communicate. Add in to that non-verbal cues like body language and past interactions with people and it becomes even more difficult.

This is why it so important to seek to understand what the other person is saying before you seek to be understood. Active listening requires asking clarifying questions to make sure you have gotten the point. I often try to repeat back to the listener in my own words what I think I just heard and what I think it means or implies. Try it and you will find out how much you really missed and how complex ideas really are. And you will also build a tremendous amount of rapport and credibility with the person you are speaking to.

Doing this really successfully requires a listener to also carry “benevolent assumptions” about the other person especially when there is the potential for conflict. Benevolent assumptions are assumptions that presume that the other person has no ill will toward you or any malicious intent.

When we do not make benevolent assumptions and instead assume that people have bad intentions toward you we stop actively listening and start to hear what we expect to hear: confrontation and maliciousness. And from this starting point, communication can only deteriorate. In other words, assuming malicious intentions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the other person can sense your animosity in your response. And how do you think they will respond?

The benefits of carrying benevolent assumptions in two-fold: first, the very nature of benevolent assumptions makes you a better listener because you are actually listening with an open-mind seeking to understand rather than shutting down because you are in a defensive state. Second, having benevolent assumptions also brings a self-fulfilling prophecy – when you actively listen with an open mind to others and can restate what they have said in your own words how much more open do you think they will be to your ideas when it is your turn to speak?

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