I try to be a good listener. It’s not as easy lately, since I have these voices in my head saying, “My neck really hurts. I need to lie down. Right now.” or “We haven’t had a family vacation in eight years. Do you truly expect me to be sympathetic that the master bedroom in your condo on the beach only had a queen-size bed?” or “Does he use Nerium? Would she be interested in Nerium?”. That last one is kind of like “Squirrel!” to a dog for all Nerium representatives. We’re the Jehovah’s Witnesses of skin care and anti-aging. We want to fix all of your skin issues, head-to-toe, and we want to make every neuron in your brain and central nervous system healthy . . . and we want to tell you all about it now!
Those issues aside I think I’m a good listener, and that I communicate well. Even over the phone I can almost always tell when someone is lying or telling a partial truth. Even a sociopath I worked with for a while had a very obvious “tell”, which makes no sense because he shouldn’t have felt any guilt about lying, right? Go figure. I’ve only run across two people in my life whose lies I could never spot. One had, I suspect, invented her own version of reality. Since she believed it, she wasn’t lying. The other would have made a brilliant actor. He could look me straight in the eye and say, “There’s a dragon in the hallway” and even though I knew he was lying I’d have to peek outside to be sure. It’s a shame I never learned to play poker.
I almost never call someone out on a lie, though. I’ve chosen my battles with the boys (Michael included), and the only consistent exception is when someone I care about says they’re “fine” and I know they’re not. I never want to pry, so usually I send a text or email a few minutes later, saying I’m worried and am available to talk at any time. Sometimes life sucks, but you’re just not up to talking about it. I get that. But sometimes you need to.
Good communication skills involve listening to and mirroring a person’s speech patterns and cadence, mirroring their body language, maintaining eye contact, and asking open-ended questions. When I read that in Psych 101 I remember thinking, “Who the hell doesn’t know that?” Well, lots of people, apparently. I blame my dad. He’s an engineer and he really wanted to teach me Trigonometry in first grade, but I wanted to play jacks instead. So I suspect he taught me the psych stuff without me knowing it. I know that of I asked him all I’d get would be a grin. Both of us say y’all – but not all the time. And both of our Southern accents lighten and deepen – depending on what’s called for. Mom has a Harlan Country accent that hasn’t changed in my lifetime and her y’all is as firmly ensconced as her all-UK wardrobe. So my money’s on Dad.
On the flip side of the communication coin I don’t mind public speaking, even when the crowd is large or questions are involved. Just don’t make me keep my hands still. My mom still says if somebody tied my hands I wouldn’t be able to say a word. Probably true. The one aspect of communication it’s taken me a long time to master is talking to people I’m angry with. I can talk to people I dislike very easily. I am a well-brought-up Southern girl. But if it’s someone who has in any way hurt me or (worse) someone I love . . . then the redneck really wants to come out. The only way I’ve found so far is to completely avoid the person (like I’m now able to do with a close family member who recently emailed me never to contact him again about anything – such a relief!) or be professional.
When I say professional I don’t mean formal, distant body language, nor do I mean disguising the matter to be discussed in euphemisms. I mean speak to the person privately. Step close, lower your voice so they have to lean in to hear you. Make constant eye contact, speak slowly and distinctly, and make it quick. Don’t repeat yourself unless the person you are speaking to doesn’t understand. If you must repeat yourself, be blunt. One sentence. You’re fired. You and your family are never welcome in my home again. I have reported your behavior to your supervisor. I am going today to get a restraining order. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Once you have a nod or some sort of acknowledgement that this is understood smile, thank the asshat for understanding, and get out. (You can forego the smile and thank-you if you are neither female nor Southern, but I find it rounds things out nicely.)
What are your best and most-used tips for active listening and effective communication personally and professionally? And how do you handle those pesky social in-between things like your kids’ team sports or group activities where there is always a communication break-down?