The Powerful Communication Strategy that will Transform all your Relationships

Stephanie Berryman/www.stephanieberryman.com

I have a really interesting job — I get to teach people how to work with one another. I teach a really fun class on communicating more effectively — I always start off the class by explaining that communicating well will help you build great relationships, whether at work or at home. We discuss the foundational elements of good communication: being clear in the message you are delivering and your desired outcome, putting away your phone and being present, using open body language, not interrupting, and paraphrasing what you have heard to check for understanding. But I also teach one powerful strategy that continues to surprise my students, something they aren’t expecting to learn in a communication class.

Let go of the story you have about the person you are listening to. Listen with an open mind. This is especially important in a time when people are so polarized and our views are so different. We need to listen to one another harder than ever. We have to let go of convincing the other person to see things our way and listen with the intent of understanding their perspective. Regardless of the situation, we need to listen with open minds and open hearts. There are so many situations when it’s hard to listen: when we are overwhelmed, when there are constant demands on our time, or when we want our spouse, our colleagues or our kids to just listen to us and do what we ask. This is the time we need to slow ourselves down, get curious and listen. Not just half-listening while you wait for your turn to make your point, but really listening to understand the other person.

Listening is far more important than talking if we want to deepen our relationships.

When we listen, we connect and, no matter what our relationship is — colleague, boss, employee, spouse, friend, parent, or child — our relationship improves. The more we listen, the more trust is built; the more trust we have, the easier our interactions are. So if you’d like to slow down and listen, read on. If you’re too busy, I get it — come back when you are able to slow down, I’ll still be here.

We need to let go of our story about the person or the situation we are dealing with in order to be able to listen well. We all make up stories; they help us make sense of our world. And it is highly probable — almost guaranteed — that whatever story you have made up about the person you are in conversation with, you don’t have the whole story. There is always some part of another person’s experience or perspective that you can’t know because you haven’t lived their life. I experience this wake-up call frequently. In my classes, I often have students who seem disengaged. My story is usually that they aren’t interested in the content and they don’t want to be there. I’ve learned over time not to trust this story and to treat people with curiosity rather than judgment. As the class progresses, I often realise how wrong my stories about the students were. Sometimes people just haven’t had their coffee or they’ve got work or life pressures that I know nothing about. I once had a woman in my class who seemed really unhappy — she wasn’t participating at all and was distracted. I was sure she had been mandated to be there. At the break, I asked her how she was doing. She explained that her husband had just died, she was off work but she chose to come in for this class because she really wanted to learn what I was teaching, and she was doing her best. Imagine if I hadn’t approached her with curiousity, I would have been operating from a totally false assumption.

I even have stories about people that I’m really close to, like my husband and kids. The stories I make up about them get in the way of how I listen to them. The other day my three-year-old daughter was adamant that she didn’t want to go to preschool. I thought I knew the story — she was aware that I was going to be home in the afternoon so she wanted to stay home with me. Luckily after a few minutes of arguing back and forth about her having to go to preschool, I caught myself. I let go of my story and approached her with curiousity. I asked her why she didn’t want to go. It turns out she was scared to go to school without a diaper (we are in the longest potty training period in recorded history; four months and counting). Instead of telling her what I wanted, I slowed down, I asked a question and listened hard when she answered. This changed everything. She got what she needed — she was able to wear a diaper to preschool. I got what I needed — a kid who went to preschool without a meltdown (albeit in a diaper, we can’t win them all!).

This strategy works well for me in every relationship I have, even with people I am so close to that I feel like I understand every aspect of them. I don’t, there is always something to learn and some part of another person’s experience you don’t know until you listen deeply. When I listen well to my husband, he feels heard, then he is happier. Then he buys me chocolate, then I am happier. Listening can make great things happen.

This strategy of opening my mind and letting go of my stories has made me a better listener which has helped me build positive relationships. What about you? What do you do to help yourself slow down and really listen? Is there someone you need to spend more time listening to?