inCredible Messages Blog

Got Leaky Communication?

Do ever wonder why two seemingly cooperative people can walk away from a conversation knowing they haven’t connected?   Why two people addressing the same problem can’t hear each other’s point of view?  Why communication can be so frustrating and inefficient?

Authors of Difficult Conversations (researchers at the Harvard Negotiation Project*) claim every conversation involves three levels.  When one party is addressing one level and the other is addressing a different level, misunderstanding is inevitable.  When the misunderstanding occurs, we often assume the other person is being deliberately difficult or obtuse.

Level 1 is the surface conversation.  This is the thing we think we are talking about: the project, the task at hand, and the decision about how to allocate time and money.

Level 1 is the simple level; yet all kinds of things can go wrong on both sides: unwarranted assumptions, mismatched education levels, anger and frustration, distractions, and personal worries.  The authors recommend you try to move from “delivering a message” (pushing your own point of view) to engaging in a “learning conversation.”  In a learning conversation, you accept that each party has information the other doesn’t have, that it is unwise to assume you know the other’s intentions, and that you each have valid perspectives on moving forward. In short, you ask questions and listen to the answers before you insist on a point of view.

Beneath the surface conversation, Level 2, the feelings conversation, is always in play.  At this level, we address (or fail to address) things like the emotional past between parties and departments.  For example, one party might think the other is consistently overbearing.  Consequently, that party might resist the ideas the other presents regarding the current project.

According to the authors of Difficult Conversations, feelings are at the core of every conversation—especially the difficult ones, especially the ones where one party is frustrated or angry.  Feelings run especially high when people feel under pressure or out of control, like when they have to depend on the other to solve a problem.

It’s important to discuss feelings, even in professional setting.  If you don’t deal with feelings in a productive way, they will block both understanding and problem solving.  When we ignore feelings, the authors say, feelings leak. Talking about feelings neutralizes their power to block solutions.

Suggestions for dealing with feelings:

  • Listen and reflect back. Take time to acknowledge that you respect the other’s point of view and are trying to understand.
  • Describe your own feelings.  Venting doesn’t help, but describing does.
  • Describe rather than judge what you hear.  Rather than responding with, “You’re being unreasonable,” try “It looks like this problem has come at the worst possible moment” or “I can see you have intense feelings about this.” Description neutralizes and even disarms hostility.

Level 3 of communication is the identity conversation, deep below the surface and often unconscious.  Like it or not, communication situations influence our self-definitions and self-esteem.  Both parties in a conversation have self-definition in play.  For example, as professionals, we are asking ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, questions like the following: Do I feel respected or belittled in this situation? Am I competent?  Can I do all this in a reasonable amount of time so I can get to my other responsibilities?

Suggestions for dealing with identity:

  • Make a habit of expressing appreciation for the other’s contributions.
  • Affirm the other’s strengths.
  • Avoid interrupting or hogging the floor.
  • Celebrate and congratulate successes.

Communication will always be complicated.  However, you can navigate conversations more successfully when you recognize and address the three levels of every conversation.  Be intentional with the three levels on conversation.  Enjoy the benefits of better relationships.

*Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. (1999). Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most.  New York:  Penguin Books.


Posted by Bonnie Budzowski in How to Persuade & Gain Commitment, Influence, Leadership.


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