During today’s indulgence in YouTube-hosted business advice, I received an excellent bit of wisdom from the ever-charming Marie Forleo. She stated that we should not be afraid to sacrifice “short term revenue for long term gains.”
This advice resonates when it comes to communicating with other people. So often, we are focused on the short-term “revenue” – which I’ll call “wins” – in our conversations and interactions. These wins are those little quips, digs, or snappy comments that give us the feeling that we’ve gained a rung on the argumentative ladder. These are intoxicating moments where we think “gotcha!” Maybe the dig made the other person acquiesce to our point of view. Maybe the other person didn’t say much at all after that and the argument, debate, or conversation stopped.
Behold, the short-term win! But did you actually win, and if so, what was it you gained?
Did the dig, the quip, the gotcha moment cause the other person to understand your point or your side? Did it help drive you towards the goal of the conversation or increase your understanding of the topic at hand? Or did it just cause the conversation to end?
Often, our communication goals can be rather long-term. Sometimes, the thing we hope to resolve in a short encounter actually takes a considerable amount of time to work through. In the real world, productive arguments are less like a political leadership debate and more like an ongoing negotiation. You give a little, you get a little, and as the negotiation pans out, everyone usually comes out ahead. That is the long-term gain.
The difficulty here is that the negotiation approach inherently takes time, compromise, and the suspension of our ego. We want to win; it feels so damn good to win! But it is very likely that the short-term win created a new tense dynamic in the conversation that actually derails your end goal.
When hashing out differences with someone else, keep things in perspective. Do you want to harangue them into a corner, shame them into silence, to belittle them into admitting you are right? Or would you rather get them to see where you are coming from, explain their own position, and then have the two of you come out of the encounter with a better solution – or at least a richer understanding of the issue?
I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.
When we feel under threat, misunderstood, ill-used, or otherwise hard done by, we tend to put up walls. They are our mental defence mechanism, a way of deflecting conversations that might make us feel bad, or uncomfortable, or wrong.
When we say that someone “put a wall up between us,” we usually refer to someone becoming quiet and stony when the conversation gets heated. Silence is definitely a type of wall. But it isn’t the only type.
Some people build their walls out of words. They fill the space between them and the person they’re speaking to with noise. Maybe they don’t let the other person get a word in edgewise. Maybe they turn the conversation into a strange sort of two-way monologue, saying only what is racing through their head and not taking time to address or even listen to the other person’s input. Still others use words to re-direct and deflect uncomfortable conversations on a tangential topic. This is as much a communication wall as the silent treatment, only it is masked with a flood of unhelpful verbosity.
What kind of wall do you build? Do you choose to shut down or refuse to shut up? What can you do differently to break your wall down?
Throw your audience a bone.
Really. Give them a clue, a hint, an indication that you are opening yourself up to an intimate exchange. All the heartfelt intentions in the world won’t tell the audience you are open to them unless you give them some form of physical cue.
Note what I said there: physical cue, not verbal cue. This distinction is important. We humans are very sensitive to the silent messages given through our facial and bodily expressions. Words are secondary; telling someone repeatedly that you are interested or open will not result in intimacy if your face doesn’t match those words. Actually, if your physical expression doesn’t match your verbal expression, the person you want to communicate intimately with will likely start to distrust you. Incongruence tends to set off our alarm bells.
What sort of expressions help create intimacy?
1) Those that indicate interest in the person or people you are communicating with: focused gaze, slightly widened eyes, and a slight forward lean or cocked head are all cues of interest.
2) Those that indicate sincerity: emphasis with movement and physical energy with slight body tension show that we are investing energy in what we are saying. That investment usually indicates sincerity; we mean what we say, otherwise we wouldn’t put so much effort into it.
3) Those that indicate vulnerability: an “open” position (chest unprotected by arms, books, etc.), shoulders down, head in neutral and throat exposed (as opposed to the chin tucked in, protecting the neck), hands visible, palms frequently displayed. Intimacy exists when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Physically demonstrating vulnerability instead of defensiveness invites people to be comfortable with us.
Being able to give these physical signals on cue is an exceptionally useful communication skill. Ultimately, your goal is to give these cues in a manner that is still natural to your own communication style. Get to know your own expressions: when you are interested, how wide do you open your eyes? When you are being emphatic, how do you move your hands? Do you always raise your right eyebrow when you find something intriguing? Stand in front of a mirror and chat with yourself out loud. Rehash a recent conversation that you wish you could have again. Deliver that witty reply you thought half an hour after the moment had passed. Deliver your Oscar acceptance speech. See what your face and body do. Then, re-create those expressions and practice them. Get to know how your face muscles work and how your hands feel. Now apply those expressions to new material such as a book you are reading. Read out loud and apply your personal expression style to the text. If you can only manage to do this in the bathroom with the shower running, go for it. That’s usually where I practice.
Remember: our bodies communicate so much. Intimate communication is free exchange; let your body demonstrate your desire for that freedom. Don’t tell your audience how you feel – show them. Even better, show them how they should feel. They’ll respond accordingly!