As a gift for the New Year, I want to give you something I consider far more important than achieving resolutions. When you master successful communication, you have the principal tool for building exceptional relationships.
The dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” That is, what you say and how you say it to others, including your spouse or partner, your children, the waiter who served you lunch, and anyone else you may come in contact with throughout the day. Broader definitions given in some dictionaries include body language, speaking and writing skills, and listening as core components of successful communication.
While all this is true, to my mind communication is actually far more expansive than even the broadest dictionary definition might suggest. In fact, in addition to communicating with all those you come into contact with during your waking hours, you also communicate with yourself—your subconscious —through your self-talk and what you visualize. Through this self-communication, you can spark your own emotions, both negative and positive, which in turn may affect your attitude and therefore how you interact with others. How you communicate with yourself also influences your expectations and therefore how you perceive things.
The first four of the nine strategies (My next article will contain the five through nine.) are by no means intended to provide solutions to every communication challenge. In fact, while many of them can be effective in any human interaction, I have chosen to concentrate specifically on communication with those who have the greatest immediate impact on your life, including your spouse or partner, your children, your closest friends, and your business associates.
I have focused on these particular relationships because they are the ones my coaching clients and workshop members have expressed the greatest interest in improving, and the ones that most contribute to living an exceptional life. This is of course not to say that you needn’t be concerned about communication with others. There have been many volumes written on the art of communication, and it would be to your advantage to read whatever you can on the subject.
Communication Key #1: When you listen, listen with your whole being
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many extraordinary people in my life, but if I were pressed to pick three individuals as shining examples of superior communication skills they would be President Ronald Regan, Frank Sinatra, and Academy Award–winning actor Eddie Redmayne. When engaged in conversation with any one of these three men, I always felt as if I was the most important person in the world. Their attention was absolute. Unfortunately, that’s not the norm.
How many times have you been in a conversation when suddenly you notice the other party is glancing around or observing someone else? How often have you felt that what you were saying was unimportant because the other person was more absorbed in his or her own opinion? How often have you done these things yourself?
If communication is really important and you want the person you are speaking with to feel special, don’t look at something or someone else.
There is nothing more aggravating than watching another person’s eyes darting around the room or glancing at an iPhone when he or she is supposed to be connecting with you. So raise the bar for yourself. When you engage in conversation, make the other person your total focus. Yes, it does take a conscious, mindful effort, but the payoff is enormous.
Communication Key #2: Refrain from invalidating other’s beliefs
Developing the communication habit of refraining from invalidating what others feel or believe is both a choice and a developed skill. Here I simply want to reinforce the value of not invalidating others’ beliefs as a means of keeping your communication exceptional.
What we think and feel is our reality—it is what your subconscious believes to be true in the moment. Having your reality invalidated can be very unsettling, as can having someone make fun of or dismiss your thoughts and feelings as irrelevant. So when it happens, it can be not only extremely troubling, but it can also break rapport. And while it’s bad enough when strangers make snide remarks about our beliefs and observations, it is even worse when it comes from those who love us. At the very least, being invalidated may cause us to question ourselves. At worst, it can result in anger or bitterness.
Invalidation comes in many forms besides verbal digs. For example, imagine you are attempting to communicate and as you speak the person you are talking to turns away to do some chore, buries his nose in the newspaper, glances at the TV, or checks her email on a smartphone. How would that make you feel? Very likely it would make you feel invalidated and diminished.
Whatever people think, feel, or see is their experience. It’s real to them. As challenging as it may sometimes be, your job is to give validation and love, not take it away by consciously or unconsciously invalidating. Your mission is to always respect the dignity of other individuals. You don’t want to be a life-diminisher. You want to be a life enhancer! Of course, this does not mean that you have to put up with rude or disruptive people. There are times when you must take a stand to protect yourself, but there are always positive choices you can make instead of falling into the trap of another’s fear and anger.
Communication Key #3: Criticize with the touch of a feather
“People say I don’t take criticism well, but I say, what the hell do they know?”
My wife, Susan Granger, is a movie and theater critic, journalist, and speaker, and it was in her professional capacity that I first met her. A number of years ago I was performing my one-man show, Journey into the Imagination, at a local university and was intent on improving the presentation. Knowing of her insight as a critic, I thought she would be an ideal resource for ideas, so I asked her to watch the show and give me some feedback. I recall very clearly her asking me, “Do you really want to hear the truth?” “Of course,” I replied. So she watched the show and gave me some suggestions—in a kind and loving way. I tested her ideas out and found that some worked and some did not. I then asked her to watch the show a second time, and then a third. “What do you want,” she asked, “your own critic?” “Yes,” I answered, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The point is not, of course, that providing criticism in a gentle way will lead to a marriage proposal, even if it did in our case. The point is that criticism does not have to be negative. Nor does it have to inflict damage. So if you are going to criticize, it’s always best to do it with love. Never intentionally bruise or hurt the dignity of another. Regardless of how confident someone may appear, everyone’s self-esteem is delicate, and we need to take special care. So make sure the person knows he or she is respected, valued, and/or loved before you talk about the issue at hand.
For example, when criticizing a significant other you might say something like, “You know I love and respect you, and I would like to speak with you about something you did that really bothered me.” In criticizing a friend, you could say, “You know how much I care about you, and there’s been something on my mind that I need to talk to you about.” Finally, if you need to criticize a subordinate at work you might say, “You’re a valued member of my team, and I need your advice on something that has been troubling me.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you should always separate the problem from the person. By making sure that the other person doesn’t feel you are attacking them, by showing that you respect his or her dignity, you leave the door open for ongoing dialogue. You will find, too, that the respect you show others will flow back to you in ways you least expect in both your personal and professional lives.
Communication Key #4: Ask for what you want and need
In your most intimate relationships, having both your and your partner’s needs met is central to living an exceptional life. When core needs are expressed, supported, and pursued, the breeding ground for bitterness, jealousy, anger, resentment, and hopelessness is destroyed. But asking for what you want and need in a gentle, loving, non-threatening way is important in any kind of relationship, whether it is with a partner, a family member, a friend, or a coworker.
How do you make sure your needs are met? Here is a good rule of thumb: Don’t believe the delusion that human beings are mind readers, even if they love you dearly, much less if your relationship with them is primarily a professional one. In my coaching practice I am often surprised by how many people believe that others should somehow cosmically know what you want and need, and provide it without them even having to ask. There is nothing as erroneous as thinking, “If he loved me, he would have remembered our special day,” “If she really cared about our friendship, she would have remembered to call,” or “If he really understood how important this project is to the success of the team, he would have offered to put in some extra time.” Faulty thinking!
By our nature we are self-absorbed creatures who often focus on our own survival or that of our loved ones. So if you want relationships that will endure, you have to cut people some slack. Someone can love you dearly and still forget those important dates. We’re all just human.
Ultimately, though, you are responsible for yourself. So you should ask for what you want and need, and you should do it in a loving way. Although you will not always get want you want, most of the time you will. Before you ask, however, it is always a good idea to consider the pros and cons of doing so. As with everything else in life, there are benefits and drawbacks to asking for something. The most important thing to remember is to make sure that you have established rapport with the person to whom you are making the request, and to be gracious if the response you receive is “Not now” or “No.”
Give yourself a great gift and begin applying these Four Keys for Exceptional Communication now and you will live an exceptional life.
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“Quantum Leap Thinking: An Owner’s Guide to the Mind.”
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IMAGINE THAT! Igniting Your Brain for Creativity and Peak Performance
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“Your ability to focus your imagination, manage your thinking, love, and be loved determines your success and happiness more than any other factor. IMAGINE THAT! Igniting Your Brain for Creativity and Peak Performance opens your mind and heart in a beautiful, intelligent and inspiring way.”
—Brian Tracy, Author, No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline and Million Dollar Habits
James Mapes is a best-selling author and an international speaker on the imagination, leadership and wellness.
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