Am I listening?

The art of communication is multifaceted

Communication is hard. I’ve read all about the different types of communication—speaking, hearing, visual cues, touch, written words, etc. And the more of these a person uses, the more likely it is his or her message will get through to the recipient.

I am not a good writer. In fact, I don’t even like to write. But I find that in my job, a lot of what I do is communicating via writing. Emails, letters and columns like this one all convey a message. But absent body language, tone and other visual cues, words can be misinterpreted. Have you ever read a news article and jumped to a conclusion about what you read only to find out later you missed the point entirely? I have. And as a writer, I have had it happen to me.

I am not complaining. The point I am trying to make is no matter what is written, the written word still is a one-dimensional form of communication. As a result, things often get missed or left out completely. I am better at speaking. But even that form of communication can be difficult. I think it’s better than writing as a communication type, but it’s also not completely effective. Sure, people can see your body language, movements and facial expressions, and your speaking volume can create powerful moments. But there is no guarantee anyone is actually listening or hearing your words. Some speakers are great; others are grating.

What about hearing and listening? Aren’t they just as important? What good is writing if no one reads it or speaking if no one is listening? I believe of all the communication methods, active listening may be the best. Some people are great listeners! I love having conversations with them. I feel valued and heard, and I feel like understanding between us got better.

Recently, I met up with a friend from my days in Congress. In the past, she and I had several great debates where neither one of us was persuaded to change our minds but both of us left understanding each other’s position a little bit better.

While we were talking a few weeks ago, we again fell into our routine of debating the political issues of the day. She came ready to let me have it and gave it to me full-bore. This time, she seemed a bit more aggressive on her positions (she calls it passion!), and she could see I was taken aback by it. Yet I did my best to hold off and let her finish. Then, she did something she hadn’t done before. She stopped herself in the middle of a sentence and said she wanted to hear my response. Before, she would interrupt me several times to rebut any response I gave. This time, she looked me straight in the eye and never said a word until I was done. Then, she said: “I never knew you felt that way.” Communication happened.

I have known her for 10 years. I admire her and like her. I respect her views. Although it was always fun to banter and debate, I never walked away thinking she completely heard me. This time I did. And it caused me to pause and reflect about my own communication skills.

I came to some conclusions. I need to listen more and more intently. I need to pause and think before I speak. I need to consider that others may not feel as valued when they talk to me as I did when I was talking with my friend. I need to better communicate by recognizing more completely that all communications are multidirectional and multidimensional. My learning as a result will be deeper, more thoughtful and more complete.

I started my column by saying I have read about the various forms of communication, and still I was not good at it. But now I can be better. Sometimes all it takes is a friend.

Reid Ribble is NRCA's CEO.

This column is part of News + Views. Click here to read additional stories from this section.


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