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REFLECTIVE LISTENING: CODED MESSAGES
Various psychological studies have indicated that the average human listener actually hears and understands only about 25 percent of what is being said to him. Obviously that leaves a huge area open to misinterpretation.
If you're an "average" listener in a family, therefore, you're going to be missing out on most of what your parents, siblings, or children are trying to get across to you. If you're an "average" listener in a business setting, you could pay the price for that 25 percent retention rate in lost sales, poor employee relations, and incalculable losses in performance.
Reflective Listening is the way out of this bind. It's the primary skill you need to perform way above average in communication, whoever you're trying to talk to or listen to.
The reason that most people are "average" listeners is that they buy in to the conventional view of "listening." In this view, listening is indistinct from "hearing." It is a quiet, passive process which requires only that you do not interrupt the speaker, do not walk away while he is speaking to you, and do not cover your ears with your hands while he is in the middle of a sentence. In the conventional view of "listening," the listener does not have to do anything, because he or she is simply a mute receptor of an active party's transmission of information.
If that were all there was to effective listening, the auto industry and the UAW would have resolved their difficulties long ago, and no line manager who was told to "meet this contract any way you can" would ever turn out a string of seconds because he heard the message "Quality doesn't count." But it's not that simple. To understand why, look at the diagram, illustrating in a schematic format the process that goes on every time one human being talks to another.
As the diagram indicates, every time one person speaks to another, you're dealing not just with the two people themselves (Sender and Receiver), but also with a Message being transmitted: that is, the actual words being "sent" by the Sender to the Receiver. And this Message is very often lost or distorted during transmission. The reason why this happens is suggested by the other two elements in Figure 9: the Coding Process and the Decoding Process.
The Coding Process is the Sender's internal mental process that determines how a given piece of information—an opinion, a feeling, an idea—is to be translated verbally, into the spoken Message. It's the Sender's private, unspoken "conversation with himself" by which he tries to put the information he wants to express into the most effective public form.
Imagine that you have been unwittingly insulted by a co-worker or a friend, and you want to let him know that you are offended by his unintentional slight. There are various ways you could get the idea of "I am offended" across, and unless you are one of those rare and invariably ineffective people who simply blurts out everything that enters his head, you will probably go through a brief internal dialogue with yourself before you comment. In that dialogue you will consider whether the appropriate response is "Jim, I think you were a little thoughtless in that comment" or "You no good S.O.B., I never want to talk to you again" or something in between. The Coding process is the name we give to this silent (and usually unconscious) internal dialogue.
The Decoding Process, on the other hand, is the Receiver's internal process that determines how he or she interprets the Sender's spoken message. The interpretation, it's important to remember, always involves the Receiver's reaction to more than the words alone. To "decode" what the Sender has expressed, the Receiver—even if he's not conscious of doing so—always attends to intonation and expression, to gesture and body language, as well. And these nonverbal cues to what the Sender means to convey are often just as important as the basic verbal Message. If that weren't the case, Messages could simply be passed from person to person on slips of paper, with nothing being lost in the transcription.
Because we don't use slips of paper but rather a huge armory of verbal and nonverbal transmitters, it's easy for both the Coding Process and the Decoding Process to go awry. This happens for several reasons.
First there's the fact that language itself is ambiguous. Consider the simple word "plan." Even a child's dictionary gives half a dozen meanings for that word. If you as a Sender tell someone more "planning" is in order, you may mean, "You need to think about this some more before you make the final decision" or, "You've got to buy that forecasting software package immediately"—or any number of things in between. By giving someone whose Behavior you want to influence a Message that hinges on the interpretable word "planning," you are setting him up to hear information that you may not intend him to hear. For not only do words themselves have several shades of meaning, but each individual uses those words in slightly idiosyncratic ways, based on his or her background, education, personal experience with idiom, and so on. Since human beings are not computers, you always have to allow for individual creativity in conversation—and not all that creativity is going to enhance understanding. When it doesn't, not only can you not motivate people to do what you want; often you can end up getting them to do exactly the opposite.
Second, the verbal and the nonverbal messages you give out can conflict, and even if you know exactly what you're trying to get across, your listener may get a different message because she's concentrating on the tone of your voice or your body language rather than the "official," verbal Message, We've all been so badly conditioned by sales people trying to stick us with garbage that we tend to be suspicious and defensive of a lot of
non-selling Messages as well. A manager can say outright, "I want those reports in by Monday," but if his voice is weak and his eyes are wandering when he says it, the message may not get through.
Finally, the single most important reason that the Coding-Decoding process gets fouled up: simple inattention on the part of the Receiver. Later I'll be talking in some detail about inattention, and about how, in various pernicious guises, it can impede motivation and communication. Here I'll just point out that most communication breaks down because the Receiver has misinterpreted the Sender's message—and that in nine cases out of ten, this happens because he has not been paying attention. The motivational outcome is always bad: when you don't attend to what the other guy is saying, you can't hear; when you don't hear, you can't respond; and when you can't respond, getting him to do what you want is like getting him to read your mind. Unless he's Houdini, that won't work.
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