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Note: This resource is part of our Moving the Bar in Your Career and Your Life, a unique approach to professional development series: Effective Communication and Constructive Conflict. Click here to see the entire series.

Everything that makes a relationship successful has one common element: effective communication. In order to grow your business, for example, you must be able to develop relationships. Effective communication is the lynchpin that starts and holds all relationships together, both personal and professional.

Overall, we are all fairly awful listeners. For example, too often, we are only half listening to what people are saying. This is because we believe we know what the other person is going to say or because our mind is on something else. Sometimes we think we understand, but don’t clarify to find out if in fact we did hear it right.

Some things that cause miscommunication are:

  • Ineffective listening
  • Noise
  • Meaning in words
  • Gate keeping
  • Appearances

We may not have developed our listening skills, which is considered one of the most important skills in business, yet is rarely taught in schools.

Our minds are often in the past or future, depending on what we have done or need to do. Other times we are guessing or assuming what others are going to say. Some people are even afraid of what the other person might be saying and do not want to hear. Many times people only "listen" enough to respond.

Noises of all kinds get in our way. These distractions prevent us from hearing. They can be other people, telephones, radios, TVs, and more. Many noises don’t make a sound. They are based on how we are feeling, our bias, knowledge, skill, and background to name a few.

Also, when it comes to defining words, the first is the standard dictionary definition. However, many words have multiple meanings, especially in the English language where slang is prevalent. Your own experience, the society in which you were raised, whether English is your first language, any emotional issues associated with the word, and your level of education could all effect the definition of the word.

One of the biggest blocks is gate keeping. This is anything that your brain or unconscious self does not want to accept as true or relevant. We filter out most of what we are exposed to in the course of a day. If we were to see and notice everything at once, we would go crazy. So our brain’s RAS (Reticular Activating System), says, "Is this important or a danger?" If the answer is no, it filters it away. The problem is we don’t realize what we are stopping at the gate.

One must also be aware of their audience, the person with whom you are trying to communicate. If you are attending a formal function and you are dressed in a relaxed manner such as jeans and a t-shirt, the other attendees will be spending more time thinking about how you are dressed rather than really listening to what you are saying. The same applies in reverse. If you are very overdressed for an occasion, others may feel threatened or potentially even fear you. Remember, your clothes communicate a message.

Clarify and Be Interested

It is important to clarify that all parties involved have understood what was meant. Repeat this process until you know everyone understands. Too often disasters happen because of miscommunication. It is up to you to do something about it. Remember, it can be as simple as asking a person to clarify.

Of the many ways to improve your conversation skills, one of the best is to be interested. Curiosity is one of the most useful tools in the communication toolbox. When you enter the conversation with "beginner’s mind," you will necessarily adopt the attitude of a learner. You will not have to pretend to ask honest, open questions. They will come naturally. As you listen, you can reflect on what is being said (and not said). You will gain information and ease tension. If you can’t think of a question, you can always acknowledge what you’ve heard, or you can say: "I see, tell me more about that."

One of the reasons we’re not curious more often is that we mentally equate curiosity with agreement. We think that if we don’t disagree immediately, our conversation partner will assume we’re okay with whatever he or she is saying. This is not useful thinking. It prevents you from seeing the whole picture and from learning where your partner is coming from.

The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, give yourself and your partner a gift by asking questions – questions to which you do not know the answer. Watch what happens. You will learn a lot, and you will feel more powerful, not less. Remember, listening does not equal agreement. It means you are a skilled and active learner, a good partner, and a conscious communicator.

Good luck and good communication!