Master the art of listening to overcome your communication problems

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

One of the first things that most people ask a psychologist is for help communicating. Jimmy and Brent were no different. Jimmy wanted help developing a succession plan so that one day he could turn his profitable business over to his son Brent when Jimmy was ready to retire. Retirement was about ten years away so there was plenty of time to develop the plan and begin training the successor. The only problem was that the communication between father and son was atrocious.

Jimmy as a sole proprietor had run his business very successfully for many years. He had built it from the ground up with little help from anyone, bankers or friends. He and his wife raised their three children while growing the business. Two children were off working elsewhere and with no desire to come into the family business. Although they had worked summers and after school for Dad, they determined in college that their interests were elsewhere. The middle child Brent, however, worked steadily for Jimmy over the years. He never worked elsewhere in fact and was now identified as the successor.

The communication problems surfaced as the succession planning evolved. Brent had an employee mentality and seemed unaware that he needed to begin demonstrating leadership skills. Afterall, he had never had management responsibility until now, so was unaccustomed to it. In the course of training him to run the business Jimmy began turning over projects to Brent. However, Brent waited for guidance from Jimmy and never completed the projects. This infuriated Jimmy who lashed out at Brent. Brent withdrew and did even less work. Jimmy started making lists for Brent. And it went on like this until the two were thoroughly alienated.

To unscramble a communication mess like this it was necessary for Jimmy and Brent to begin listening to each other in a new way. Communication is more about listening than it is about talking. And communication is mostly about listening to the real meaning intended behind the words being spoken or written. For example, when my daughter Bianca was just three, she looked up at me with a very serious expression on her little face and said, “My neck is tight.”

Three-year-olds have limited life experience and an even more limited expressive vocabulary. Taking this into consideration I wondered if she was trying to tell me something but was using words in a way unfamiliar to me. Further, she was coming to me with her problem, so she must have thought telling me this would be of some help to her or me. Third, I asked myself how it might feel if my neck were tight. Then the light bulb went off. I asked her if her neck was tight on the inside and she nodded an affirmative. So I explained that we called that feeling a “sore throat,” and I gave her something to soothe the irritation.

There are a few simple tips you can begin practicing immediately to clear up communication problems you are having with your loved ones, employees, friends and business associates. First, listen for what the other person means not just what they are saying. Bianca was trying to tell me she had a sore throat and that she wanted help. Brent through his actions was demonstrating that he didn’t understand what leadership means. Jimmy can’t assume that Brent will catch on quickly if he has never had the opportunity to learn or practice this skill.

A second tip is to ask yourself “Why is he or she telling me this?” When people communicate they unconsciously and many times consciously identify a certain person to talk with. The person is chosen because the speaker needs a certain kind of feedback that they hope they will get from the person. My daughter Bianca chose to tell me about her sore throat because I am her mother and a person likely to care and to help her. Jimmy chose Brent to be his successor because they are father and son. Jimmy’s impatience with his son is because he expects Brent to understand him better than others and because he is the heir to the business. Jimmy cares about his son, not just the business. He wants his son to succeed, so he pushes.

Third, assume that the person has a very good reason for telling you their story. It is often easy to dismiss another person when they don’t make sense to you or perhaps are talking about something uninteresting. Often the only reason for talking is to connect with another person. If the other person is telling you something you already know, or sharing a tidbit of local gossip, or asking you questions about yourself, it is quite possible they are “just making conversation.” But this is no small thing. There is nothing small about “small talk.” It is a quick way to build rapport and trust between people. Often in our busy lives we skip the small talk and get on with the agenda.

Jimmy and Brent were more successful with their communication when they realized that at work they had seldom engaged in small talk. In the past, Brent had quickly learned to do his assignments and not interrupt his busy father. Thus when Jimmy began turning over important projects requiring more communication of an executive nature, Brent didn’t know what to do. He expected his father to give him an assignment, not ask for his opinion. When the two started to talk as peers, to engage in chitchat, Brent began to understand that his opinions mattered. He began to engage in more creative thinking which eventually lead to developing his innate leadership abilities.

Communicating is an art. It is a complex never ending process that requires your attention. If you assume because you are in the same family, or because you work in the same industry, or because you are both native English speakers, that understanding each other is simple, you will create confusion over and over again. On the other hand, if you try these three tips . . . listening for the meaning, noticing why the speaker chose you, and accepting the meaningfulness of all communication no matter how small . . . not only will your communication effectiveness grow, but your relationships will improve too. Doesn’t it feel good to be understood? Try giving that to others.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or Look for her new website especially for entrepreneurs

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