At a lecture on “Leadership and Change” for MBA students, I asked, as part of an exercise on interpersonal communication, that students turn to the person next to them and spend a minute talking on any topic of their choice – whilst looking each other in the eye as they spoke. At the end of the minute, some reported that they found the exercise “uncomfortable”, “embarrassing”, and even “unusual”. For others, it was revealing. It felt very natural and was something they’d take practical steps to incorporate in their day-to-day relating.
The phrase ‘inter-personal relationships’ suggests 2 or more people in relation with each other, communicating. Indeed, the word “communication” (co-mmune-cation) is very suggestive of 2 (co) persons (or more) commune-ing or sharing intimate thoughts or feelings. To this extent, real communication is actually a ‘spiritual’ experience. This may be what William Shakespeare referred to, as he is known to have stated that “the eye is the window of the soul”. My students felt “uncomfortable”, and “embarrassed” because they looked in the eyes of the person they were paired with during the exercise. It could well have been the first time they really focussed on another person as they spoke. They had in fact communicated, person to person, soul to soul…
What does this all this mean, you ask? How does this relate to me in the workplace?
Have you ever been in a situation where whilst speaking to another, a family member, friend, or work colleague perhaps, you became conscious that the person, though looking at you, wasn’t actually listening? It was as though the person was there, but not there. Perhaps you were the person not there, or the one watching the scenario unfold? What did it feel like? Were you in or out of rapport with the person? Looking back, what do you think led to the breakdown in communication?
Interpersonal relationships is about building rapport. It is about realising that it is not just about you, it is also about the other. When we are in rapport with an-other, we are in communion with them. We enter into their world, to see what they see, to hear with they hear, and to feel with they feel. Stephen Covey (1988) calls this process seeking first to understand (see: “7 habits of highly effective people”).
“Seeking first to understand” means being able to switch off the voice in the head, so that the ensuing internal silence reflects the actual ‘external’ activity of listening – and then speaking, as required. It is almost like giving oneself totally (in that moment) to the other allowing them the space to commune (or share their thoughts and feelings). Adopting this approach has surprising results. You begin to realise what the other person is actually saying – beyond the verbal dialogue. In this type of inter-personal relating, we start to know what the other is communicating. This knowing, is called felt knowledge, derived from paying attention (or focussing) on both the verbal and non-verbal cues being communicated by the other. Interestingly, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, approx. 70% of inter-personal communication is actually non-verbal…
So, would you like to lead the type of inter-personal relationships you want? Do you want to be the expert communicator you truly are?
- Step 1: Seek initially to build rapport, not just to put your point across.
- Step 2: Manage the voice in the head – by being still internally…and thence externally.
- Step 3: Pay attention and focus on verbal (speech) and non-verbal (body language, breathing, tonal pitch, etc.) cues.
- Step 4: Show support and empathy to the other. Look at them as they communicate with you.
- Step 5: Speak as required, and in accord with what comes up through active listening.
- Step 6: Don’t give up! Keep on practicing until you begin to see, feel and hear the difference that makes the difference in your communicating…
This is the type of communication upon which strong inter-personal relationships are built be that at home or in the workplace. Indeed, Psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (Johari Window, 1955) suggest the way to achieve this level of communicating and relating is through a greater knowing of self and other. In effect, leading interpersonal relationships is a two-way street. Like a dance involving two partners, it’s about you…and how good you are at leading the other person.
Interestingly, where the other person also takes a leading cue in the ‘communicating process’ – such that there is a shared ownership of the dynamic, exciting new heights and levels of communication (and clarity of thought) will be reached.
NB: This is the 3rd of 4 reflective articles on leadership. Do keep a look out for the final article in this series on: Motivation