Say what?! Conscious communication

How do you define communication?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

How do you define good communication?

Like Brené Brown, who says “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”? Or like author and TED speaker Nancy Duarte: “Words that are carefully framed and spoken are the most powerful means of communication there is.”? Or maybe you subscribe to the John Wayne definition: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

For me, good communication is conflict-free, positive, deep, and affirming.

Networking? A waste of time unless I experience “good communication.” My love relationship? We need to connect in a positive, deep, affirming way every week – if not every day. My work with clients, meeting planners, my team? Something must be wrong – with me or with them – if we don’t engage in some kind of generous, authentic and thoughtful love-fest whenever we interact.

What about you? Is good communication about efficiency? Or being emotionally honest? Does it require thoughtful skepticism? Perhaps it’s staying light and fun? Or fighting your way to the truth?

You see the problem: It’s hard to resolve issues and create a fun, safe, engaging work or home environment when our definitions of good communication are unseen and unspoken – and may be in conflict.

But what if it could be different? What if we saw that our ideas about good communication come from an unconscious lens each of us wear, often created in childhood and made up of our motivations, fears and desires?

We often think we are seeing “the truth” – about ourselves, each other, a situation, good communication – but we are seeing through an unconscious personal lens. And so is the person we are communicating with.

Our unconscious lens filters out all perspectives but our own. I call this the “Ew!” lens, because it can make us scrunch our noses and go “Ew!” about other people’s communication styles and ways of being. We can end up resisting – personally or professionally – those who don’t share our unconscious lens.

Sound familiar? Is there anyone in your life or work that makes you go “Ew!”? Someone you tend to avoid? How does this impact your engagement and effectiveness at work, or your joy during the holidays?

Years ago, while leading a non-profit I founded that serves orphaned children in rural Zimbabwe, one of my key volunteers – a nurse I’ll call Sharon – was a powerhouse. She up-leveled everything she touched with efficiency and effectiveness. She was strategic and sharp – both in mind and tongue. You know the type. They make things happen, but feelings can get hurt in the process.

She intimidated me.

I tried my best to communicate with her, but I didn’t know my unconscious lens – or hers . So I either gave in to her because she was faster and louder than me, or I became passive-aggressive to avoid conflict.

Eventually she created an interpersonal mess on the team. I finally took off my unconscious lens and confronted her about her communication style – but by then it was too late.  

Do you have a similar dynamic with an employee or colleague? Ew! And: Ouch.

What if, in recognizing our unconscious lens, we could shift to the conscious lens of strengths and personality?  This lens reveals all perspectives with clarity and kindness. I call it the “Oh, of course!” lens: When we understand someone else’s perspective, their communication style – and behavior – makes perfect sense.

In my work, I integrate and use StrengthsFinder, Myers Briggs and the Enneagram. But no matter what strengths and personality data we use, the “Oh, of course!” lens helps us communicate with others in a way that creates a culture of compassion, honor and impact, instead of criticism, judgment and indifference – which can be game-changing in our lives and relationships.

Looking back through the conscious lens of strengths and personality, I believe Sharon’s definition of good communication was to engage in a straightforward, assertive, efficient, challenging way. Why? She hates injustice. She wants the truth in any situation. She’s a heroic leader who simply wanted to save and restore orphaned children’s lives as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Our very different definitions of good communication, however, meant that my conflict avoidance was kryptonite to her – as much as her assertive style was kryptonite to me.

Had I known what I know now, I would have given Sharon a leadership role that allowed her to run as fast as she can – without running over other people. I would have removed bottlenecks and given her decision-making power, instead of being intimidated by her and afraid she was thinking poorly of me.

James Humes says, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”  If we want to grow as leaders, we must notice when we are wearing our unconscious “Ew!” lens, and shift to our conscious “Oh, of course!” lens – the lens of clarity and compassion.

Take a moment to reflect on your definition of good communication. This is a powerful clue to your unconscious lens.  How has it shaped your life and career?

In the coming weeks, we will look through the “Oh, of course!” lens of StrengthsFinder, Myers Briggs and the Enneagram. I’ll provide practical tips for understanding each strength and personality type’s definition of good communication so you can shift your internal lens and cultivate compassion – for yourself and others.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about how your team, business or association can harness the power of personality to improve engagement, communication and bottom line results, I’d love to chat with you!