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Communication Competence: the case for enhanced soft skills for our new digital world

Submitted by on Monday, 29 October 2018

speakToday was a typical day. I arrived at my office early in the morning and began by checking email: colleagues, fans, strangers writing from around the world, each with their own agendas, each email exchange demanding a different type of communication. I then went to LinkedIn and connected with new colleagues from several countries, answered questions from followers, and added ideas to a group discussion. Twitter is always strictly relegated to 10 minutes. Then I had several Skype meetings: with a business partner from Paris and her colleague in Brussels to consider developing a healthcare app; brainstorming with my tech in India; coaching a team of banking reps studying Buying Facilitation® with me, and a strategy call with a new client to discuss a leadership implementation we’re developing; a brainstorming call with another author of listening books in India to discuss ideas for a collaborative article we’re writing. Finally I spoke with a friend, now in London visiting her dying grandmother. I spent the rest of the day writing an article, using Google for references.

I suspect your worlds are digitally similar and equally challenging: our global interactions include people with ideas, cultural norms and assumptions, perceptions, religious beliefs, and languages different from our own. The internet has expanded our world. And therein lies the problem.

WHY IS OUR COMMUNICATION PROBLEMATIC?

We all take our communication skills seriously. But in this digital world of instant connection with people around the globe, our communication skills haven’t kept up: we speak from our normalized biases, assumptions, and patterns; we listen with our habituated, biased listening filters; we use terms and regional communication styles and (very idiosyncratic) subjective criteria and reference points.

Sometimes we hear others accurately, sometimes we don’t but think we do. Sometimes we unwittingly use terms that annoy, or are annoyed by a Communication Partner’s (CPs) terms. I remember once, when living in the UK, being insulted when someone from London said my house was ‘homely’. Only later did I learn that ‘homely’ in the UK means what ‘homey’ means in the US, while ‘homely’ in the States means ugly. What was meant as a compliment almost ended our dialogue.

Using our established communication skills, we may not know when or how to modify our languaging accordingly, or hear precisely what’s intended and face the possibility of communicating ineffectively with people outside our experience and culture.

It’s time to add new skills for global communication: without knowing when what we’re doing isn’t working – listening with a cultural or subjective bias that causes an ineffective response, asking what might seem to be pushy, or manipulative, or invasive questions, responding according to our own agendas – we can only have a restricted set of communication choice points available, causing us to respond or connect inappropriately. We need soft skills training.

Soft skills always seem to be put on the back burner. When I wrote my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? I got calls from several HR Directors who wanted to bring in my unbiased listening skills training (just one day!), but couldn’t get the buy-in to actually hire me. Why? Because, they said, everyone thinks they know how to listen. But of course that’s not true. We certainly know how to hear spoken words; but there is no way we can correctly interpret them when what we hear is outside our normal references.

WE CANNOT KNOW HOW ANOTHER’S REALITY DIFFERS

Finely honed throughout our lifetimes, we all live in a reality of our own making, seeing, hearing, and feeling the world uniquely, according to our own idiosyncratic, and very unconscious, filters – obviously some degrees removed from veracity. Programmed to do this, our brains are pattern recognition devices, unconsciously on the lookout for anything (differences, disparities) that may challenge our baseline beliefs and status quo.

  • We hear what others say through biases, triggers, and assumptions that carry a modified interpretation of what’s been said through our brain’s habituated neural pathways, mistaking or misinterpreting some fraction of the intended message: we hear the message our brain wants us to hear regardless of the Speaker’s intent. And because our brains fail to tell us what it mangled, omitted, or misinterpreted, we actually believe that what we think we hear is accurate.
  • We feel our emotions through automatic feedback loops that trigger us, via normalized and habituated neural pathways, to historic events our brains have determined are similar to the current event, objective reality aside.
  • Our vision is idiosyncratic and habituated. We each see colors uniquely, for example; we remember details according to historic triggers, and our field of vision is restricted accordingly.
  • We choose neighborhoods and mates who match our beliefs; professions that are comfortable in dress codes, values, communication patterns, and culture; even our TV choices match our chosen reality and biases.

Sadly, we don’t question our experience. Our brains don’t tell us the level of interpretation or modification they’ve automatically chosen for us, nor do they tell us when we might be missing something important, expecting something that was never promised, or fabricating something never agreed to. And yes, we occasionally, unwittingly, hurt others.

Yet we continue doing what we’ve always done, believing our constructed reality to be True, believing that our skills are fine, regardless of the consequences. Why? By adhering to our subjective reality, we get to maintain our core beliefs and cultural norms so we can wake up every day and ‘be’ who we are. Our inadequacies, prejudices, mistakes, and viewpoints are built in and habituated daily. And we’re comfortable. So long as we stay in our own worlds.

Obviously, this restricted, biased reality has consequences in our global worlds. What happens when we encounter people or situations that are sufficiently different from us and our miscommunication causes us to inadvertently take a wrong action? What happens when we actually hear something inaccurately and act on what we think we heard rather than what was said? [My book explains and fixes this: What? Did you really say what I think I heard?] What happens when we perceive incoming harm, and it’s merely our unconscious biases overreacting? What happens when we misinterpret someone’s intent and miss an opportunity for joy? What happens when we consider ourselves successful, or content, or ‘right’, and blame another for any confusion? What happens when we unwittingly harm another?

What do we lose when we react inappropriately to something we mistakenly deem reality? What happens when our livelihoods are dependent upon making accurate decisions and having truly collaborative conversations with folks outside our normal sphere of influence, and our questions, or listening, or comments, or assumptions, go against the norms of our CPs? It’s all unconscious; we may never know if something untoward is occurring until it’s too late.

It’s time for soft skills training to be a Thing. Our communication status quo is just not good enough in our global worlds. It’s time to get training to

  • enlarge possibility,
  • expand our realities, understanding, inferences, and unconscious biases,
  • make fewer errors and have more choices,
  • hear what’s intended, even when it goes outside of our reality,
  • include a new set of triggers, neural pathways, and listening filters,
  • have no personal restrictions that could hinder our connections.

GUESSES AND HABITS

Often we can’t tell if what we take away from a partner communication is accurate when it seems to be fine. Unfortunately, our brains don’t tell us they’re hearing, feeling, or seeing something uniquely: it seems normal to us. Even those few instances when we notice something seems a bit ‘off’, we’re merely comparing what’s in front of us against what we have historically held to be ‘true’ and have no idea what is causing the irritation or our part in it, too often blaming the other for the problem. And even when we try to understand there’s a good chance we can do no better than confirm, misinterpret, or disprove according to our own biases, using our own ‘givens’ as comparators of ‘right’. We are actually projecting our status quo and guessing meaning per our past predictions. It’s real if we believe it to be real.

Indeed, there is no intrinsic meaning in anything, outside the meaning we give it, making a problem difficult to fix even when we suspect something is wrong: the same unconscious, habituated neural pathways that caused the problem is restricted when it needs to do something outside its scope.

By bringing soft skills training to all of our professions, sales folks can accurately connect with prospects and customers in other countries, coaches can work with clients worldwide and effectively enable self-driven change, leaders can run groups and implementations with folks from different countries. Here are the programs I believe necessary.

  1. Listening: What we think someone says has been unconsciously curated for us by our filters, biases, assumptions, and triggers; we only hear what our unconscious wants us to hear. In fact, while our brains sift and insert, they don’t tell us what has been misinterpreted or mangled, leaving us to believe that what we think we hear is accurate. And we never realize our errors until it’s too late. I’ve lost business partners who think something has been agreed with without my awareness that anything was proposed.
    • To actually hear/understand what’s meant, we must override our normalized listening filters and develop neutral neural pathways to hear through.
  2. Asking unbiased questions: Even with colleagues, the questions we pose are indications of what we want which biases and restricts possible responses and can be easily misinterpreted by those outside our culture.
    • Pose Facilitative Questions that direct the brain to specific memory channels (i.e. not interrogation devices) to enable others to figure out what THEY want from the conversation, disconnected from our needs or guesses.
  3. Managing triggers: We all have unconscious, habituated, normalized triggers that are activated automatically with a word, phrase, or idea, causing us to use our own subjective values to judge our CPs. With global colleagues, it’s especially important to unhook our triggers to have effective communication.
    • We must learn to recognize, and make adjustments for, our own triggers and biases, and add new triggers to make mutual understanding possible.
  4. Choice: We must learn to choose communication skills that match our CPs skills, especially once we recognize a miscommunication.
    • We must know how to disconnect from our habituated responses, listening, and general communication styles and build in the cultural norms of our communication partners.
  5. Expanding curiosity: Our curiosityis limited by our current knowledge. With a global audience, we must expand our curiosity to ask better questions and listen accurately.
    • To wonder why a conversation is taking a turn, or not progressing, we must go outside of our habituated biases and subjective defenses to recognize problems outside our customary thinking.
  6. Negotiating skills: Different countries, different cultural groups, have different expectations when they negotiate. Learn them.
    • For win-win to occur, both sides must understand the other’s interpretation of what is fair, and must supersede acculturated expectations.
  7. Changing beliefs: Our beliefs are the underlying trigger in any communication. We need to examine what they are and how they align with our global communication partners.
    • Soft skills programs are designed to change behaviors but don’t cause permanent behavior change unless the originating beliefs and norms that created the behaviors are modified. All soft skills programs must focus on permanently changing beliefs so new neural pathways and triggers are installed.
  8. Gaining empathy: Short of living in a new community for years, the easiest way to understand other’s cultures and experience is by reading novels.
    • I recommend James Baldwin, Jane Austin, Toni Morrison, JD Vance.
  9. Writing: Much of our communication is through writing, albeit through our own styles that might conflict with a CPs expectations. We need to learn to write in more efficient, neutralized ways to ensure we don’t conflict with others due to how we write.
    • Training must be designed to teach skills for email exchanges, social media interactions, proposal and presentation writing.

CAN I HELP?

I believe my learning facilitation model is perfect for today’s need for enhanced soft skills. I’ve spent my life – since I was 11 – coding the steps and skills for unconscious choice and change to enable influencers (leaders, sellers, doctors, parents, coaches) to facilitate others through to their own, idiosyncratic, systemic, congruent decisions to change; I can use this Change Facilitation approach to help people prepare to learn learn, buy, change, themselves from their own core, largely unconscious, criteria. Instead of outside/in, it’s inside/out.

Used in global corporations since 1987 (first course with KLM titled Helping Buyers Buy) I developed this approach when I realized that people cannot respond accurately to the type of shared, or experienced, information offered in current training modalities (regardless of value or efficacy) due to their own habituated filters, biases, assumptions, cultural norms, etc.

As a result, learning occurs in only people who can hear, understand, and accept that approach, that idea, that representation. So: offered information is automatically biased by a listener’s filters; conventional questions merely represent the biases of the Asker and restrict the response framework accordingly; and the training approach of a set of data being offered, using the languaging, examples, and exercises of the course designers, and may cause unconscious reactions or lost learning.

In other words, the only people who will truly benefit from a program are those whose unconscious beliefs are already aligned; all those with different biases, different beliefs, different assumptions or norms, will not be able to hear, understand, abide by, or comprehend the need for, the proposed change and may find it incongruent enough to resist. This problem persists not merely in training programs, but anywhere outside influencers try to effect change. So buyers with a need won’t buy; patients with an illness won’t follow doctor’s regiments; coaching clients won’t buy-in to a needed change.

Using my learning facilitation approach, people seeking change can discover their own route to their unique learning path, eschew bias and resistance, and create their own permanent change where existing choices are found to be less than excellent.

I’ve used the training to spearhead permanent behavior change, to expand possibility and make new decisions without resistance or bias: sellers can facilitate buyers through their change management issues to enable buying; doctors can teach patients to make appropriate, permanent behavior changes; coaches can help clients buy-in to permanent change; unconscious bias and diversity programs can help people get rid of unconscious bias. Here are a few of the skill sets that I developed that are different about my training model.

Facilitative Questions – with no bias from the Asker except to facilitate congruent change (in other words, not used as interrogation vehicles), these questions are designed as directional devices to help Responders traverse through their unconscious route to change and discover how to change, using their own criteria. They are posed in a specific sequence, using specific words, to enable others to figure out their own unconscious answers, and actually, lead through the steps of congruent change. I know there is no referent for these questions. I have trained their formulation to over 50,000 people, so the skill is learnable and scalable. Please email me to start a conversation. To learn how to formulate these, take a look at this learning tool.

Listening – normal listening merely uses accepted viewpoints to make sense of what’s said. Remember: we only ‘hear’ air vibrations that hit our habituated neural pathways and are interpreted as per our biases. It’s possible to go outside our habituated pathways and listen without bias. To learn more about this, read sample chapters of my book What?. If you get excited and want to learn how to do this, use the Study Guide I’ve developed that takes you through each chapter to shift our normal skills. Or call to have me train a one day program for your folks to listen with choice.

Choice – we currently make choices according to our own biases and norms. I’ve coded the steps of choice and change and can teach people, and outsiders (i.e. leaders, coaches, trainers, etc.) to intervene in their own or other’s choices at the stage where there is a breakdown, incompatibility, or misrepresentation.

I’ve first tested, then offered, this training in global corporations such as Morgan Stanley, IBM, Kaiser, DuPont, P&G, FedEx, Wachovia, etc. using control groups and pilot studies which consistently found my learning facilitation approach 8x more successful than the control group. For those needing a more expansive discussion on this, read my paper in The 2003 Annual: Volume 1 Training [Jossey-Bass/Pfieffer]: “Designing Curricula for Learning Environments Using a Facilitative Teaching Approach to Empower Learners” pp 263-272.

So here’s the pitch: when used in training, my learning facilitation model does something well beyond conventional training models that use information as the route to helping others embrace, adopt, receive, or execute a new idea or behavior. I can actually teach people how to change their core choices, and help them develop new neural pathways for choice, using their own terms of excellence, so they can adopt the new behaviors they choose.

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Sharon Drew Morgen is an original thinker and thought leader. She designs change facilitation models that enable the buying decision journey in sales (Buying Facilitation®), the change issues needed for coaching clients to permanently change, the implementation issues needed for leaders to organize congruent change without resistance. Sharon Drew is a speaker, coach, trainer, and NYTimes Business bestselling author of 9 books including Selling with Integrity, Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? Sharon Drew is a speaker, consultant, trainer, and blogger of an award-winning blog www.sharondrewmorgen.com.