“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” is something my mother knew, so she might not have needed communications expert Brian Shapiro, but most of us do.
Intuitive, but ignored, techniques
In his book Exceptionally Human, Successful Communication in a Distracted World, Shapiro, a communications consultant and Penn faculty member in organizational dynamics, describes how spoken or written messages can be better understood and received, what he terms exceptionally human communication. He provides an academic and real-world context for techniques that seem obvious but are often overlooked when we’re rushed, irritated, or too focused on our side of the communication.
The overarching rule is: Consider the other person. What is her preferred style? How much detail does she want? What’s your relationship with her? How will she react? Or as Mom used to say, “Put yourself in her shoes.”
Aristotle’s rules still apply
Exceptionally Human is a quick read filled with recognizable situations. Shapiro models his approach on Aristotle, who more than 23 centuries ago identified three qualities — ethos, pathos, and logos — as being essential to good interactions. We understand them as trust, emotion, and reason.
Shapiro cites research, but doesn’t overburden the text with theory and statistics, skimming the surface of a subject that affects us at almost every moment in our increasingly interconnected world. Some of the numbers are intriguing, such as Albert Ellis’ finding that we spend 10 percent of our time gathering facts and 90 percent interpreting them. This information may relate to an equally imbalanced statistic observed by Albert Mehrabian: we derive 10 percent of meaning from words and 90 percent from factors such as context, our expectations, and the speaker’s credibility. It would be interesting to hear how they arrived at those figures.
Obviously, facial expression and tone influence communication, but as Shapiro points out, thanks to technology, we’re talking less and writing more, especially in short, swift bursts that allow plenty of misinterpretation. Though slow responses to e-mail and other new forms of communication can diminish credibility, Shapiro stresses the importance of tailoring messages to deliver desired information and maintain positive feeling.
Set a five percent goal
It’s a tall order, but small gains can yield more productive and pleasant relationships. Shapiro suggests trying for just five percent — devoting five percent of the workday, 24 minutes, to communicating more competently — reducing gaps in understanding, building credibility, evoking desired emotions, incorporating logic, pausing a little longer before we respond.
What if your doctor or internet provider communicated five percent more thoughtfully? What if you and your teenager could reduce misunderstanding by five percent? Or you developed five percent more trust with a supervisor or co-worker? As Shapiro writes, “In one sense, there is no rigorously objective way to measure the impact of being an exceptionally human communicator…At the same time, we know the powerful downside of ineffective communication is very real.”