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Seeking a higher order of communication.

THE BICKERING and stonewalling in Congress have been going on for a long time. For Americans and much of the world, Congress' inability to communicate productively seems ridiculous. In fact, according to an Associated Press poll, approval for the nation's leaders reached as low as five percent during the government shutdown a few years back. You may have said, or ranted, or posted, or at least thought: if I acted that way, I would be fired for sure; I just cannot believe we pay these people to represent us.

Guess what?--we do act that way. From time to time, we all have committed the same sins for which Congress has been lambasted. The stakes may be higher when a senator refuses to hear out his colleague from the other side of the aisle, but the senator's behavior is just like talking over someone we disagree with during a work meeting, and when a House representative makes a negative remark about the president in a press conference, well, that is pretty similar to the time we posted a rant or a snarky comment about our ex on Facebook.

Just as members of Congress seem incapable of bringing in their higher-order communication skills until they absolutely have to, we, too, avoid using them in our daily lives. After all, it is much easier to criticize, to pick apart ideas, and to talk about what will not work, but these quick and easy reactions will not solve difficult problems. In fact, as I am sure you have witnessed firsthand at some point, whether in a workplace conflict or an argument with your spouse, impulsive reactions usually make things worse.

Some of this bad behavior can be chalked up to plain old human nature, of course, but a big part of it has to do with the times we live in--specifically, the digital revolution of the last 20 years, which has brought us innovations like the Internet, smartphones, and social media. This greatly has encouraged quick and expedient lower-order communication over more thoughtful and deliberate higher-order communication. We send a short text instead of collecting our thoughts and calling. We email instead of walking down the hall for a face-to-face conversation. We post hasty and disjointed comments on social media instead of composing a more reasoned response.

Magnifying the problem, the digital revolution also has brought hypercommunication. Our inboxes are overflowing; our phones chirp with texts; and online conversations move at a breakneck speed. We cope with the deluge of messages by defaulting to speedy and convenient communication. Because the vast majority of our daily communication now is quick and expedient, we are losing our higher-order communication skills from lack of use.

The problem is that we still need to do difficult things, too, like resolve a work conflict, troubleshoot disagreements, comfort a grieving friend, settle an argument with a spouse, or persuade a moody boss or a headstrong client to our way of thinking. While all communication does not need to be higher order, we have to be able to call on those skills to tackle tough, sensitive, and important issues.

Here are a few ideas on how to strengthen your higher-order communication skills:

Contain escalating conversations. Heated and uncivilized conversations pose a serious danger to our underlying relationships. That may sound like an exaggeration, but all relational damage happens when conversations escalate, which is why the ability to contain a conversation that has become contentious is an invaluable higher-order communication skill.

Containment means that we lower the intensity level of the conversation, redirect to the root issue if there is one, and tactfully bring the conversation to a close when there is no root issue to discuss. When we actively contain escalating conversations, we safeguard against serious relational harm and, as long as the underlying relationship remains intact, we can return to the conversation after tensions have cooled.

Stop talking and think for a minute. While words can build relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless tweet, or a hasty remark can--and does--land people in hot water all the time.

People require some space to absorb information, formulate their responses, and deliver them effectively. I am not saying that you should take a vow of silence--merely that, as the CEO of your tongue, you should issue an executive order to stop talking long enough to think about what it is that you are going to express. This will help you get in front of ill-advised words and provide the space you need to self-correct when you are angry or upset.

Do not always "be yourself." Not so long ago, there were more structural impediments to our communication. We could not afford to talk frequently to people outside our local area code, and it was hard to speak with several people at once unless the conversation was face-to-face. If we made a communication gaffe, it was not such a big deal but, now that we can talk to anyone, anywhere, at virtually no cost, the ability to express ourselves instantly can be much more dangerous.

"I was just being myself' sounds harmless, but it often is an excuse to indulge in destructive behavior. Smart communicators realize that one single action--not allowing your feelings to dictate your words--will impact your quality of life profoundly, as you will get what you want more often. By focusing on what you want to accomplish instead of what you want to say, you will keep your conversational goal in its rightful place--above your feelings in terms of priority.

Question your questions. Questions are not always neutral. They make some of your conversations better but, as you probably have noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even "simple" inquiries can go awry. "Is your mother coming over for dinner again?' or "Did you call Jim in accounting about this?" can cause trouble if the other person thinks a criticism lurks behind the query.

Some of your relationship problems probably reflect your underdeveloped questioning skills. Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query simply to indulge your personal cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow personal interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. It is better to focus on what you can learn from or about another person and ask questions that reflect a broad curiosity about the person or topic you are discussing.

Beware of "chatter clutter." The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression but, ironically, made it harder for us to listen. There simply is too much "chatter clutter" getting in the way. For instance, consider the frenetic activity happening on Twitter at any given moment. To make the most of our conversations, we need to remember how we connected effectively with others before we had smartphones and computer screens to "help" us.

Specifically, implementing three guiding habits--listen like every sentence matters; speak like every word counts; and act like every interaction is important--will help you be more present in conversations and will improve your digital-age communication. These "old school" guiding behaviors will help you become a better communicator--not perfect, but better. That is a goal that is well within your reach and one that immediately will improve your quality of life.

Calibrate your responses. We all too often use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering email when a more restrained reply would suffice, or issue an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would do. Conflicts that start or escalate with excessive force frequently cause a destructive cycle--attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force seldom is a winning strategy.

It is not always easy, but try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective. In other words, bring a stick to a knife fight in order to neutralize a harsh conversation. Try to stay serious and focused, and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Keep your words calm, controlled, and stabilizing--do not add any new emotional material.

Muzzle your inner know-it-all. It is human nature to want to be right. However, the urge to prove another person wrong often gets people into hot water and torpedoes conversations. Correcting another person can spark arguments, damage the way that individual perceives you, and harm the underlying relationship. Remember, nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes being contradicted.

Unless something crucial hangs in the balance, if someone misquotes a statistic, mangles a story, or makes a logic error, do not whip out your smartphone and start searching the Internet to prove her wrong, and when someone lays a goofy conspiracy theory or profoundly loopy world view on you, do not treat it as your moral obligation to set him straight. Playing dumb means letting go of the need to be right about everything.

Do not leap into every battle. In our achievement-oriented society, avoiding or ignoring issues is not always appreciated, but that is exactly what smart communicators do. They know that our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary chatter, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. Smart communicators are willing to let some problems go unsolved so that they can focus on those that truly are important.

Some issues reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside the other person. Avoid them unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work.

Ignore insults. When somebody offends you, your inner Neanderthal rushes to the front of your brain, uigjng you to club your foe over the head and show the other person that you will not allow yourself to be treated that way --but guess what? Your inner Neanderthal is not known for restraint, civility, or strategic thinking.

Think about it: a hotheaded retort to your boss' criticism could cost you a good performance review, a project, or even a promotion. Allowing your spouse to draw you into a harsh fight can do serious damage to your relationship. I am not suggesting that feelings do not matter or that you should let anyone insult you consistently, but people say things they quickly come to regret all the time. Do not let your inner Neanderthal lunge for the club; give the other person a chance to self-correct instead. Even if you are offended, try not to let the interaction escalate.

Geoffrey Tumlin is founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, Austin, Texas; president of On-Demand Leadership; founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit; and author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life.
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Title Annotation:Words & Images
Author:Tumlin, Geoffrey
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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