We’re Talking Past Each Other, Now What?

By Plum Cluverius, MA/ABS, PCC. Have you been in a difficult conversation when the person you’re talking with seems bent on misunderstanding what you’re saying? A conversation where no matter how hard you try, you can’t get your point across? That’s frustrating, isn’t it?

This situation actually has a name. It’s called Wallen’s Communication Gap, named for the social scientist, John Wallen, who first described it. The communication gap occurs because any two people who are communicating have two different filters encompassing their experiences, hopes, fears, expectations, and predictions. When Person A sends a message through their filter, Person B receives it through a different filter. These unconscious filters potentially distort the original message to the point where the messenger might not recognize it.

Not long ago I was facilitating a conversation between a client and his manager and all indications before the session were that we would end up in just that situation. The problem? My client believed his boss made unreasonable demands and was impossible to please. No matter what my client said or did, the boss wouldn’t listen to reason. In addition, he assumed the boss was trying to get rid of him. That, as you can imagine, is quite a filter! For more about listening, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Beyond Active Listening: The Power of Level Three Listening.”

To help both parties really hear each other, I used a technique I learned long ago. It’s simple, but not easy. When either the client or his boss said something, the other person had to articulate what he heard the “messenger” say. Before the conversation could continue, the “messenger” needed to confirm that his message had been accurately received. If not, he would give the message again. This cycle continued until the messenger was satisfied that the receiver understood what he was trying to say.  Once the “messenger” signaled the receiver’s correct interpretation, the receiver could then respond, sending a message of his own with the process repeating itself. Here’s an example:

Client’s Boss: “I believe you have a lot of potential—that’s why I gave you this job. To be successful, you need to stand up to people, be willing to tell them ‘no.’ People don’t know what you think.”

Client: “What I hear you saying is that I’ve disappointed you and you don’t think I’m up to the job.”

Client’s Boss: “I do think you’re up to the job, I wouldn’t have spent all this money on a coach if I didn’t think so. Everyone has to learn new things when they take on a new role. Being willing to stand up for your perspective is what I think you need to learn.”

Client: “I thought you got me a coach because you wanted to fire me!  But now I see that you think I can handle the job if I can learn to be more aggressive.”

Client’s Boss: “Not more aggressive—that would alienate our customers. What I want is for you to listen to them, but to also give your solution instead of telling them what you think they want to hear. I don’t want to fire you—I want to invest in you.”

Client: “So what you’re saying is that you’d like me to tell people what I think we should do and that you are investing in my success.”

Client’s Boss: “Exactly.”

Repeating back what you heard the person say can feel awkward at first and slows down the conversation, which can be tough if you’re used to a fast pace.  But it saves time in the long run because it means both parties have the same understanding of what was said. It means that you have talked with each other rather than past each other. It also means that if you’re giving instructions, you know the other person understands what you’re after. 

Isn’t slowing down the conversation a bit worth those results?

To learn more about communicating effectively and truly listening and hearing what others are saying, schedule a consultation with Plum.