Because external control of another person’s thoughts and feelings doesn’t exist (there is no real Jedi Mind Trick that I am aware of), it pays to think carefully about communicating with other people. Many of us communicate as if we can make another person understand what we are saying. Very often, we try to persuade by force and relentless hammering away at them with what we consider a good point.
I’m raising my hand at this one. I was that guy. I am that guy at times still, and I’m probably an outlier on the side I’d rather not be on. But the more I understand that I can’t make anyone think or feel anything, the more I try to consider another person’s possible perspective, or perhaps more importantly, her likely perspective. While I think I have always been very empathic (being raised by a social worker pointed me in this direction, thanks Mom), I find that this new understanding has taken me to even greater levels of empathy.
When I’m thinking clearly, instead of thinking more about the validity of my point or the holes in the other person’s misunderstanding (misunderstanding here means according to my thinking at the moment), I start thinking about commonalities. What does this person believe? How is what I am pointing to similar to what they already believe? Clearly my approach isn’t working, so what can I point to that will be closer to something that they already understand?
As I start thinking in this way, new questions often occur to me, and it often leads to me asking questions that help clarify the person’s current understanding (as opposed to hammering away with my next good point). The great leadership expert Steven Covey called this first seeking to understand.
Once I have a clearer understanding of the person’s beliefs, I am then usually able to communicate in a way that honors their own current understanding. I am then able to point in a certain direction, one that they are likely to understand.
First seeking to understand so that I may make a better point in a certain direction typically improves my communication in the following ways:
- Allows my own empathy to rise.
- Honors the other persons right their own beliefs, opinions, and feelings.
- Creates a clearer picture of a new path for mutual understanding, one pointed out by me and possibly understood by them.
- Often leads to me pointing in a direction that helps both of us realize our inherent connection.
Because we do not have external control, all we can do is point in a certain direction. It is up to the other person to see what we see or not, but before they can accept it, they must understand it. This is why it is so important to start from their understanding. Even very disparate ways of seeing the world have commonalities, and these commonalities breed acceptance. Once understood, an idea is accepted only to be later confirmed or rejected long term.
Trying to make someone else accept your point seems a bit like saying, “You will understand my point or be ignorant of it.” All this does is point to my own foolishness. In contrast, it seems that pointing in a certain direction is like saying, “Ok, I think I understand what you see. Now please, look over there. Do you see what I see?” More and more, I am finding that I am capable of the latter, and it has improved my communication.
I hope my pointing in a certain direction about pointing in a certain direction helps you understand communication a bit better. Thinking about pointing in the right direction should help you make a good point (an act of pointing in the right direction for yourself and others) rather than focusing too narrowly on your own point (a position in your own thoughts).