To Serve Man” is a short story by Damon Knight written in the 1950’s. It was loosely adapted in the 1960’s for use in an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the story, three alien emissaries come to earth promising assistance with our greatest problems, even allowing humans to visit their home planet via “exchange groups. After receiving their gifts and translating the title of their staff handbooks “To Serve Man”, no one asked any more questions, believing only in their altruistic intentions. The twist comes when after further translation; it’s discovered that the book is actually a cookbook. Although this science fiction tale is an extreme case, it certainly underlines the importance of effective communication.
Unfortunately there are many issues that create barriers to effective communication. The first thing to understand is that verbal communication is only one aspect of effective communication. Communication not only involves having superior verbal acumen, one must also have skills in both listening and comprehension.
The main barrier to effective listening is when we listen with a personal agenda. Distracted listening can cause many misunderstandings. How often have you been in a conversation and the person to whom you are speaking asks a question about something you’ve already said? When we are so busy thinking about our next response, we cannot give the speaker our full attention. Often we are too busy focusing on one of many internal and/or external distractions to really listen to what the speaker is saying.
Part of being an effective listener is to limit noise barriers. Personally controllable audible noises such as phones, email beeps, messenger pings are avoidable distractions that can be minimized. Some external noises (construction, other people, environment conditions, room temperatures, etc. and other things that cannot be controlled which makes it more important than ever to control the things you can.
Although there are many strategies for effective listening, I always say you should use your S.E.A.L.
Stop: Stop thinking about your own concerns and agenda. Stop making mental comments and focus on the speaker. Give your full attention to the other person. Quiet your internal voice and really be there in the moment mentally not just physically.
Empathize: Empathize with the speaker’s feelings rather than remain detached. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel in their circumstances.
Ask questions: Asking questions will not only clarify your understanding, it will also demonstrate your interest in what is being said.
Listen: Listen for the essence of the speaker’s meaning. Seek to understand the details, ideas, and messages the speaker is trying to convey.
Being an effective listener actually assists you in overcoming barriers to accurate perception. Listening helps you form an overall understanding of what the speaker is trying to communicate. Allowing you to be active and not reactive to the way they express themselves.
People often tend to see and hear what they want to see and hear. Forming an impression from a portion of information, making assumptions, forming stereotypes and generalizations can cause a distorted focus and lead to misconceptions. As speakers and listeners, we send and receive cues constantly, and not everyone will have similar interpretations even when given the same set of information. The possibilities for multiple interpretations make it extremely important to have strategies to ensure accurate understanding.
When asked how I deal with perception and information interpretation issues, I always say, just obey the L.A.W.S.
Look: Look at the speaker, when possible. Pay attention to non-verbal cues and body language in an effort to gain a better understanding of what the speaker is trying to convey. However, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by them.
Analyze: Analyze your perceptions. Seek other observations, and additional information. Beware of making assumptions. Question your interpretations. Ask the opinions of other people around you to see how they are interpreting what is being said.
Work: Work on improving your perception. Find out which barriers to perception tend to impact you and your thoughts. Seek honest and constructive feedback from others regarding their perceptions of you in an effort to increase your self-awareness.
Stop: Stop stereotyping and forming generalizations. Be honest with yourself, and be open to other ways of doing things. Yes 2 + 2 = 4, but so does 1 + 3 or 5 – 1. Understand that you can value yourself, your ideas, and knowledge while still acknowledging others experience and input. Work on not taking everything personally.
While our miscommunication issues may not have as extreme consequences as in the story, it can certainly feel that way in some situations. However, unlike those unfortunate characters, we have the opportunity to avoid communication pitfalls. By successfully making the commitment to leverage communication strategies you will not only help improve your ability to listen and your perception, you will also become more complete in your overall understanding of what it means to communicate effectively and improve your ability to do so.