When presenting training programs, I know that, if someone enters my classroom late, every student in the room will likely miss a bit of what I was saying, even though they think they weren’t distracted. But external distractions aren’t the only things that cause us to lose portions of a conversation or other communication. Our own active minds do this too.
Often, while watching television, something I see or hear will start me thinking, and a few minutes later, I realize I have tuned out from the very program I found so interesting. This is one reason I like recording television programs to watch later, rather than live. I can always go back and replay the parts my wandering mind missed.
Yet, we often assume that the people we talk to take in everything we say. Then, when they fail to react as we expect, we become frustrated with them. Further complicating the situation is the fact that we cannot possibly be aware of all the things that might temporarily distract our listeners. So, if something’s worth saying, it’s often worth repeating.
How can we ensure that our important concepts are heard without irritating people by excessive repetition? One technique is the communication skill of paraphrasing, explained in chapter 11 of Bridges to Consensus. When I sense that there is a disconnect between what I’ve said and what the other person heard, I generally try repeating my original statement at least once. Then, if the disconnect persists, I know that the most likely cause is not distraction, but rather, a difference in the way my listener and I interpreted the same words. So at that point, I try paraphrasing, restating what I said in different words.
|Stan:||What a hot unproductive day! I need something to help me feel better. Let’s go get some ice cream.|
|Ollie:||I don’t want ice cream. I’m trying to lose weight. Let’s go take a walk in the park.||Ollie doesn’t get it.|
|Stan:||But I need something to help me feel better.||Stan repeats.|
|Ollie:||A nice walk will make you feel better.||Ollie he still doesn’t get it.|
|Stan:||I want something to help me cool off.||So Stan paraphrases.|
|Ollie:||Then let’s go to a movie. The theaters are always freezing inside.|
In this example, Ollie’s comments gave Stan some clues as to whether or not he understood what Stan said. In other cases, we don’t know whether our listener understood us correctly or not. So, if what you have to say is important, it might be worth at least one repeat and one paraphrase.
|Stan:||Next month is Officer Batty’s 50th wedding anniversary. We ought to do something special for him.|
|Ollie:||Maybe an anniversary party.||Ollie may or may not fully understand.|
|Stan:||It’s his 50th. Let’s make it special.||Stan repeats.|
|Ollie:||Right.||Still no sign whether or not Ollie fully understands.|
|Stan:||A golden wedding anniversary is a big achievement. Let’s make the party a real standout.||Stan paraphrases.|
Don’t forget that we don’t hear everything either. So if someone isn’t making sense, paraphrase what you think you heard and ask them if you’ve got it. You’ll save both time and trouble.