Are you dealing with uncomfortable communication in our ultra-connected world?
We live in a world where anyone can be reached instantly via text, phone call, or email, from any location, at any time. There is no operator plugging in calls through wire switches. There is no waiting for the mail to be delivered by Pony Express or even a mailman. There is no telegraph operator and receiver to translate coded transmissions. We can reach anyone, worldwide, at any time.
So, with such instantaneous, ubiquitous communication at our fingertips, why do we still have breakdowns in communicating? Why don’t people use all the extra time to really understand what someone else is trying to express?
Several reasons. First, people make assumptions constantly about what another person knows or understands. Second, oftentimes, it is simple laziness or even vindictiveness (or more basically, insecurity) that causes someone to hold on to information to maintain their position for fear of losing it.
Since there is an aspect of laziness in making an assumption, and insecurity is based in fear, let’s uncover these two main aspects—the assumptions and the fear.
Everyone knows the saying about assuming. When you assume, you make an ___ out of you and me. If that is true, and it pretty much is, why do we continue to assume things? Assuming is convenient and because it is neurologically efficient (i.e. it saves energy, which is what our body is genetically programmed to do), but in fact, when put into practice with other human beings whose brains are seeking to be efficient, it ends up being anything but efficient for both parties. If you layer on judgment with those assumptions, then a conflict situation easily erupts.
Assumptions are based on a foundation of missing information. It is the brain’s way of saving energy.
A (1 recognizable or familiar circumstance) + C (recalled outcome with that circumstance) = D (assumption).
Clearly left out is poor “B”, the additional, missing facts or circumstances that might change the outcome in the particular case. B is the unknown that your brain does not want to deal with. It is the variable that would require a new neural connection. Too much work. Too much energy to expend.
While our body may be saving energy (or so it thinks) by taking a shortcut, generally this process will end with extraneous messages when it could have been resolved with one thought-out and carefully crafted message. It is like driving an extra 20 miles and expending a gallon of gas at $2.10 per gallon to save five cents per gallon on a 12-gallon fill-up ($0.60). Um, that’s a net loss of $1.50. Not good economics.
And if the lack of communication is not a case of assuming? That leaves fear. Everyone understands fear. Fear happens frequently. Sometimes daily. Afraid of not being able to pay bills, afraid for your children’s safety, afraid of what the economy will do, afraid of what your friends will think of how you dress. It is what you do with that fear that makes the difference. When we silo ourselves, we create barriers. We create obstacles. Barriers and obstacles do not propel us forward. They hold us back. People seldom stop to realize how much effort is required to hold a position, particularly when it’s unnatural, when no one else around you is helping you hold that position, and when you are constantly bombarded with opposition to that position.
So, what do we do about it?
How do you avoid making assumptions? Ask questions. Plain and simple. “Please let me clarify,” “Allow me to summarize what I think you said,” “Let me see if I got this straight,” “Did you mean _______ when you said ___________,” “Can I go over what your instructions were,” “To avoid any confusion, here is a recap of what we discussed: _____,” “Were you talking to me or her?” “Did you want me to __________,” “Please give me an idea of what you intended here….” etc. Spend the extra minute and ask the question. Send a clarifying or summarizing email. Spend the extra minute talking to someone at the end of a meeting to review and summarize key points. Spend the extra minute thinking about alternatives before dashing off that text. You will be shocked at the difference in your life. The time saved. The arguments avoided. The positive outcomes. Really.
As for fear, you will need to disengage from it. It does not feel good to be challenged or to be at risk. People are immediately uneasy with the unknown and possible change. When they feel uneasy, they want to hunker down, go full defensive, build a wall. Just a little outreach in those moments, however, makes all the difference. Seeing the other person as someone trying to do what you are doing, striving to possibly accomplish something good or who may just not understand what needs to be done, can make all the difference. As Dr. Sarah Spradlin, of Mission Six Zero, often recommends: stop expecting what you would do to come from other people. In this case, people do not communicate like you do. It’s hard to accept but that doesn’t mean they are wrong or bad, necessarily.
Do you put yourself at risk by sharing information with someone else? Possibly. Do you put yourself at risk crossing the street in the middle of a city? Equally possibly. Yet, you do not avoid crossing streets. Stepping outside your comfort zone and allowing a bit of vulnerability opens the door to extraordinary possibilities that might not have existed—maybe the person will tell you something that makes your job easier. Maybe they are just nicer to you and help lessen some of the tension you are feeling. Maybe they become a friend.
The biggest advantage we have yet to uncover in the exponentially rapid-paced information age is getting communication right. It is uncomfortable. It takes more time than you think you have. It might put you at risk. But then again, if those that study human interaction and behavioral dynamics have their analysis right, you will most likely end up in a calmer, better informed, lower friction, more satisfied position to take on the world.
- See Frank Han, “How the Brain Saves Energy: The Neural Thermostat,” Yale Scientific, September 2010.