Thursday, September 16, 2010

Communication: Defining Roles and Asking for What You Need

How many times have you been in a conversation with someone and thought to yourself, “Ugh, I really just want to share this and not have them try to solve the problem”? Or, on the flip side, “Hmm, I don’t know how best to support this person right now”? In both cases, whether you’re the one sharing or the one on the receiving end, it’s important to get clear about what’s needed in the moment for the conversation to be useful. Here are some recommendations on how best to do this:

When Sharing
When in the position of having something to share with someone – whether it’s venting, seeking counsel, brainstorming options, etc. – it’s key to get clear from the beginning what you need and to ask for it. For instance, if you really need to get something off your chest and you just want to be heard, then say: “I am going to share something and I just want you to listen.” In this example, you let the person know what you need (to be heard) and what role they can play (listener, and nothing more). Another example: “I have been dealing with a challenging situation and want to get your objective input on how best to approach it.” Here you are saying that you need input and suggestions, and the person can be prepared to have his/her ears and thinking hat on simultaneously.
When Receiving
When on the receiving end of communication, it is helpful to establish what role the person wants you to play. This may happen at the beginning before they start sharing, or after they are finished sharing and you are preparing to respond. In either case, I find it helpful to say: “Do you need me to listen, or are you looking for a response from me?” You can ask: “Who do you want me to be here… a partner, a friend, a manager, a coach, an objective 3rd party…?” This helps guide how to listen, as well as allows you to offer the kind of feedback (or not) they are looking for.

Another recommendation is to ask permission from the person before giving your input. For example, you could say: “I have some thoughts about this. May I share them with you?” Or, “I have a few suggestions… are you interested in hearing them?” In these cases, if the person really is not interested in getting feedback, they can say so. Even if they are not sure they really want feedback, if they gave you permission to do so, they can’t hold it against you because you prepared them for it.
Communication is challenging. We all have varying degrees of experience, training, and facility with it. Consider whether you need to take steps to improve your skills in this area and seek it out. Listening in particular is an area where most people could use an upgrade. Objectively assess yourself (or ask for feedback from others) and determine where some training would be beneficial.

At very least, if you can get clear about roles and what each party needs when communicating -- and actually have a conversation about it -- it can be a much more positive, productive experience.

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