One skill you need to learn if you want people to listen, understand and act

Approximate reading time: 2 minutes 30 seconds

My husband speaks Numbers which makes him an extraordinary auditor but a somehow problematic partner for a person speaking Emotions like myself. Such a difference in our communication styles should eventually lead us to an inevitable tragic end yet here we are after 20 years still living under the same roof with quite a positive attitude towards each other. How is this possible?

A long time ago I have noticed that whenever we tried to make a common decision on an important topic on which we were not unanimous from the start it seemed impossible for both of us to understand what the other person’s position was. No need to say it might have ended badly. Luckily, it didn’t and I need to give credit for this success to a piece of furniture.

I remember I wanted that cupboard so badly I obviously used all the best arguments I could think of to convince my husband that it was worth spending on it a big part of our budget, very limited at that time.

My original position was that we wanted it because:

  • it was beautiful;
  • it made me think of an exotic holiday;
  • it was making me happy.

My husband’s position was that we didn’t need it because:

  • It was expensive;
  • It took too much space;
  • It was high maintenance hence not practical.

At that very moment I suddenly understood the secret of successful communication. Therefore I told my husband it would be beneficial to us if we bought the cupboard because:

  • It was of a very high quality;
  • It had a timeless design;
  • It was roomy so it could replace two other pieces of furniture and free some space.

Can you see what I did there? I spoke the language my husband could identify with. I came up with arguments that resonated with him even if they were not at the top of my priority list at that time. Basically I spoke Numbers for a while, although clumsily and not without effort.

If you want people to listen to you, if you want them to understand and, eventually, if you want them to identify with your cause you need to speak their language, not yours.

Understanding people you want to communicate with is not easy. It is not easy even in an everyday communication on common issues such as buying a new piece of furniture, leave aside something as complicated as astrophysics, biotechnology or AI.  It takes time and effort and, let’s be honest, it may not always be possible. However, if you want to be a successful communicator you need to do your homework thoroughly whenever possible.

Communication starts from understanding your interlocutor. It’s about listening to them and, if possible, giving them what they need and in a way they are able to accept. It’s less about the words they use and more about which values they express through those words. Even if your audience is not entirely homogenous you may assume there are some similarities among its members that you should know in advance and use this knowledge to get to them with your message. Are they all policy-makers? Are they all children? Are they of the same nationality? Gender? Education? Finally, if you can’t see any patterns there maybe it means your audience is too broad and there is no way you could find a proper communication style to reach them all at once and with one single message.

If you are still not convinced imagine this. Try to explain something to your friends in French if they don’t speak that language. Would they understand what you wanted to tell them? Would they be interested? For how long would you manage to keep their attention and what are the chances they would eventually agree with what was said? And what if you insisted on speaking French even after they showed you their first (and second) signs of dissatisfaction? How would this make them feel about you, your message and about themselves? Science is like French for those who don’t speak it. They may admire the sound but they will not understand it.

Communication is about your efforts to be genuinely helpful. Communication of science is caring about making a real difference for your audience, for yourself and possibly for the world outside.

If you wonder how my husband and I solved our little “cupboard dilemma” I won’t keep you waiting any longer. We have finally bought it and I am enjoying it every day since.

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