Communication is one of my big passions, right up there with films, cheese, and dogs. I love communication so much that I spent four years studying it at university and still think of myself as an absolute beginner on the subject. Yes, I can read and write and converse (congratulations, self!), but communication is a lot more than that. The best communicators are able to create powerful narratives, compel action, and foster empathy.
At Yarno, we recognise that empathetic communication starts with us, and how we interact with each other as a team. At this very moment, we’re all doing an internal learning campaign on the principles of empathetic communication, the skill of empathic listening, and dealing with different communication styles.
The very first thing to know about empathy is that it’s based on the knowledge and acceptance of something very simple that we all learn in childhood: that other people are different to us. Other people have different mindsets, perspectives, beliefs, desires, and intentions. They have been shaped differently by a whole life of experiences that we’ll never get access to. This is called theory of mind.
Theory of mind allows us to do something called attribution, which also happens to be the first step in the empathic process. We attribute traits and characteristics to others, and step imaginatively into their shoes to collect information about them in the form of facts and feelings.
The next step is called accommodation. Once we’ve gathered everything we know about the other person, we then adapt our behaviour and communication to suit their needs. This can be as simple as smiling at someone who’s happy to make their joy feel even sweeter, or it can be a more cognitive and time-consuming process like designing products for elderly people after putting on an elderly disguise for three years (a surprisingly true story!).
One great skill to have is being able to put aside all of your opinions, beliefs, and judgements while listening to someone else’s point of view. Empathic listeners are really good at validating the other person’s feelings, mirroring their body language and facial expressions, and asking insightful follow-up questions. Most importantly, empathic listeners refrain from passing judgement even on an internal level. They don’t think, “This person is right”, or “This person is wrong”, or “This person hasn’t got a clue what they’re talking about.” They simply try to be present in the conversation.
However, empathic listeners don’t necessarily have to give up their assertiveness. Daryl Davis is a great example of someone who uses his empathic listening skills to great effect. Upon understanding the perspectives of KKK members, he’s able to build rapport with them and change their racist beliefs.
And finally, it’s worth taking into account that communication styles differ greatly from person to person. Some people like to address difficult scenarios in a very direct and straightforward way, while others prefer to be vague and polite. Some people like making decisions on their own, while others prefer to collaborate. Some people talk a lot, and others talk very little.
There’s no hard and fast rule about what to do when you’re communicating with someone who’s very different to you — it’s just a combination of insight, intuition, and negotiation. The success of the interaction (and ultimately, the relationship itself) is based on each person’s ability to assume positive intent. This means realising that the other party doesn’t mean to harm or distress them, but is communicating in the way they think is best.
Putting it all into action
Having shared all of this research with the rest of team, I imagine a future scenario in the Yarno office to go down a bit like this:
Liam comes to work in a bad mood because he spilled cold water all over his t-shirt. Tess is having a good day, but she notices that Liam is uncharacteristically grumpy (theory of mind). She sees the water spillage on his shirt and imagines quite accurately that Liam has had an unfortunate accident, and is unhappy about it (attribution). She asks Liam what happened, setting aside her niggling desire to point and laugh at his misfortune (empathic listening). She asks questions, but finally accepts that Liam isn’t in a talkative mood (communication styles). She then offers him a spare Yarno t-shirt so that he can get changed in the bathroom (accommodation).
Of course, empathetic communication isn’t black and white, and challenging situations aren’t always resolved neatly. But knowing the foundational concepts and frameworks is a great place to start.
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