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Build Bridges, Not Walls

by Sue Hawkes

I’ve been presenting on effective communication for 27 years now, and it has consistently made me check myself as well as my results. Like anyone, I can go on “autopilot” and lose focus on being intentional with my messages. When this happens, I revert to saying things the way it’s most comfortable for me to communicate because that is easiest and most practiced. But it is not always effective; others understand me less. I find the greatest opportunity for miscommunication exists when I don’t take the time to consider who my audience is and what works best for them.

To keep myself on my toes, I operate with the belief that “the meaning of your communication is the response you get,” which comes from NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming). If you embrace this philosophy, it means the responsibility for your communication is with the speaker 100%. It is up to you to find what works best for the other person, and flex to that. It means looking up from your email draft and turning off autopilot. When we communicate with others in the way that is comfortable for them, they understand us better and feel understood.  When people are understood, they are open, curious, willing to listen, and forgiving. This is where we build bridges instead of walls. Read below for simple suggestions on how to build these bridges every day.

1. Find the common ground. Ask yourself, “Who is in front of me? What do I have in common with this person/audience? What goals do we share? How can we help each other?” Recognizing the shared goal, benefit or problem to solve will help you establish rapport and build trust with the other person/people. Let your common ground drive you as you collaborate and work together.

2. Speaking of trust, it’s important to recognize that people assign trust differently.   Some people assume trust from the moment they meet you. When you first begin interacting with them, they trust you 100%. As time goes on, that percentage of trust may decrease depending on your actions and behaviors. Other people believe trust needs to be earned. These people believe you begin at 0% and trust is earned as time goes on and your actions align with your words – words alone are not enough. If you usually assume trust, you may misread people’s preferences and become offended or try too hard if the other person doesn’t open up quickly. In fact, you may need to work on talking less and doing exactly what you promise to gain trust in the relationship. Conversely, if you are one to hesitate in relationships, you may need to give others the benefit of the doubt if you typically use logic and a proven track record when entering first time situations with those who assume trust.

3. Set clear expectations. No matter what your communication preference is, establishing clear expectations will increase your success. Everyone requires different amounts of information to produce results. Sharing key points, like deadlines and specific deliverables, will keep everyone accountable and on the same page. If someone needs more information, the door is now open for them to ask for what they need. Without a specific deadline (date and time), many people will prioritize as it makes sense to them – based on the relationships at hand, other competing priorities, or personal preferences. It sounds simple, but most of us are juggling so many priorities we don’t have space or perspective to clearly step outside our activities and determine what is truly most important when all are considered.

4. Check in if you see the other person reacting. If you embrace the philosophy that the meaning of your communication is the response you get, it’s important to respond according to how your message is being received. If the other person becomes defensive, angry, or silences themselves, that’s your queue to stop talking, check in and genuinely inquire about what is happening at that moment with the other person. Asking what’s occurring for the other person will let them know you care. If you miss this opportunity, you may as well stop talking. Your message isn’t being received anyway. When you can pause and be curious, there is space for you build a bridge, create common ground and attempt your communication in a different way.

5. Beware of your automatic assumptions. I believe humans are “assumption-making machines.” When we are on autopilot, it’s easy to assume everyone else perceives the world as we do and understands the world the same way we do. That is rarely true, and recognizing this will encourage you to communicate more intentionally. We all need to check our assumptions when responding to others. If you find yourself reacting or becoming defensive, you have an opportunity to be vulnerable and share that with the other person while extending the opening to learn how to be better together. Silent resentment and frustration rarely lend themselves to close relationships or productivity. Saying “I don’t understand,” or “what I heard you say…” gives the other person the chance to reframe their communication. Although this requires vulnerability on your part, it’s absolutely worth it when building trust.

I have been teaching and studying communication for over 27 years and still learn new things every day. I believe communication is truly at the heart of everything we do. In any group of people, we have the opportunity to do amazing things – build a company, raise money, change the world- it’s all possible if we can effectively communicate. The kind of communication that builds trust, shared values, and connectedness inspires us all to contribute the best of who we are. To build more bridges, we need to interrupt our automatic behavior, become curious and create understanding.

Sue HawkesBuild Bridges, Not Walls