Listen only to the message; talk only to the person

Photo by AndYaDontStop

Last week I was preparing for a long drive with many people in my car. In order to make room for bags in the back of my car I took out the basketball I always carry there and put it on the back shelf near the back window. Some guy I don’t even know, who was standing near me, saw me put the ball near the back window and told me that it is dangerous because if I will have to make an emergency stop something not tied flying from the back of the car is like throwing a huge heavy brick inside the car.

And you know what? He was right. But I didn’t listen. Why? Because of the way he said it. He said it in a condensing way that meant the only thought I had was: “How obnoxious is this guy”. And for a minute there I thought about leaving the ball there just for spite. Who is this guy – I don’t even know him – to talk to me like that, and tell me what to do?

Luckily, I thought again. I decided to ignore that instinct and take the ball down. Tie it down so it would not pose a risk. Because no matter how unfriendly the guy was, he was right. And that made me think of two things:

1. We tend to think that if we just make a rational argument people will agree to it. If we just use the right line of reasoning people will see the light and come around. Unfortunately, people don’t work like that. They have many emotional barriers that prevent them from assessing the situation in a rational way. So it does matter how we say things. How we offer new ideas. How we criticize. It is not only the validity of our arguments that will determine whether or not we will be listened to, but also the way we present these arguments.

2. We need to try to separate the issue from the person. Yes, the remark I got about the ball in the back of the car could have been phrased better. If he would have approached me and asked me if he could make a suggestion instead of just saying it in a smug tone, I might have accepted it more easily. But did his tone change the fact that he was right? More importantly, did his tone change the fact that I was risking my life just to spite some guy I don’t even know? Sounds crazy, but we do it every day. How many bright ideas are we missing because we don’t like the person who raises them or the way he acts in meetings? What advice did we fail to take because we were too emotional to separate it from its source and evaluate it on its merits alone?

Do these two ideas seem to contradict each other? Maybe. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”. But I don’t think they actually contradict. As communicators, we have no control over what goes on the mind of the other person, but we need to make sure we do as much as we can to help him get the message. The same way, we do have control over what is going on in our mind. And we have to do everything we can to understand what the other side is saying. Isn’t that what communication is really about?


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