By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
The most common problem brought into my office is that of communicating with others, a spouse, a boss or coworker, a child. No matter what level of society or what kind of job the person comes from the art of communicating so that others will listen is an art that is difficult to cultivate. There are many reasons for this and they are amply exemplified in family firms. First, a family is a group of members from two genders and two, three or four generations. Spicing the soup further, is added the interaction of the family system with the work environment and non-family coworkers and employees. Third, family members are often baffled by communicating with the ones they love. Isn’t love all that is necessary to form a strong relationship? As a result I am frequently asked to help members of family firms to iron out their communication difficulties, especially the ones that have lead to an impasse at work, or to the brink of divorce, or to a feud between parent and child. Until the misunderstandings are ferreted out, and new communication skills learned, members of a family firm may stay in a quagmire of distrust for years. The first place to start if you want to be heard, is to listen yourself. But this is easier said than done. Listening is a very creative component of communicating. However, once you become good at listening, half the current misunderstandings will disappear. One simple way to begin your education at becoming a better listener is to ask yourself “Why is he or she telling me this?” In other words, you are looking for the meaning behind the words. People have good intentions. They are trying to communicate with you. But often their words don’t reflect the inner meaning. To be able to respond to this inner meaning, you must put yourself in his or her shoes and ask yourself what is the meaning behind these words or behavior? Another step in becoming a good listener is to realize that people cannot not communicate with you. That is, they are always sending you meaningful (meaningful to them) messages if you can only learn to interpret them.
So even if you think you are getting resistance from someone, realize that this individual is telling you something that is important to them. Perhaps your grown son is not attending to his responsibilities at work, despite repeated conferences with you, because he feels that he is constantly in “the old man’s shadow.” Or perhaps your husband works 60-70 hours a week at the family business because he believes that by being a good provider he is demonstrating his love and loyalty to you. After practicing nothing but listening for a few weeks, you should be getting pretty good at figuring out the other person’s reality. Remember, we all live in our “maps” of reality. Your interpretation of reality is not necessarily superior to any other person’s. Maps are just a convenient way to structure our lives. In figuring out another person’s map of reality and responding to it, you begin to let the other person feel respected, appreciated, even loved. In order to respond to another person, it is necessary to put your own ego aside. Listen, observe and learn the “language” of the other person. Once you begin to speak their language, you will be surprised how much they want to learn yours. In other words, the real key to learning to talk so that others will listen is to learn the art of drawing people to you. By developing your creative listening skills, others will want to talk with and listen to you too. Perhaps you remember the short story “The Gift.” The story tells of a young couple who were so poor at Christmas that they had no money to buy each other a gift. So the young man, sold his pocket watch to buy his sweetheart a comb for her long beautiful hair. And the young women, cut and sold her hair to purchase her husband a watch fob for his pocket watch. The willingness to sacrifice your own needs temporarily and step into the other’s world, brings rewards that are deeper than a comb and a watch. Dan and Jane had a similar problem when they came for consultation.
Their communicating skills were so bad that they were on the brink of divorce even though they still loved each other. Dan complained that his wife was not supportive. Because he worked long hours seven days a week, he wanted her to be more supportive when he came home. She on the other hand, resented these long hours and the fact that she was left to manage the household and three young children by herself. By the time Dan finally got home in the evening, Jane wanted to turn the children over to Dan so that she could rest. Dan wanted the house clean and the children fed when he got home. This couple worked valiantly at trying to break through the communication barriers, but their maps of reality were radically different. Instead of being more supportive at the end of the day, Jane planned extra social activities for she and her husband, hoping that luring him away from work, would help him relax. This only made Dan mad and unappreciative. And in order to coerce her “support” Dan would give Jane “assignments” to accomplish before the day’s end, so that he wouldn’t have any work to do when he arrived home. Needless to say, she got even less accomplished than before. The solution for this couple lies in learning to understand the other’s map of reality and responding to it, rather than imposing one’s will onto the other person. Dan needs appreciation for the sacrifices he makes to support his family. Jane needs appreciation for the sacrifices she makes to support her family. Then they both need to stop sacrificing! A reevaluation of just what each needs and wants and is capable of creating is in order. By listening and responding to the maps of family members, coworkers, friends and others, one improves his or her capacity to be listened to. Next comes the tough part of negotiating an ongoing workable relationship. Just how to navigate those waters will be the subject of next month’s column. In the meantime practice listening and determine how many different realities there are out there!