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Why Kindness Is Key When You Communicate

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Sometimes the simplest parts of great communication are the easiest to forget.

With all the talk about tools and strategies in the communications world often the most basic and most effective approach can get short shrift: kindness.

Successful communication and kindness have a lot in common. For example, they both require you to pay attention. And the better you pay attention, the better your communications skills will be.

What I see in myself and others is a lack of awareness of the ways in which we sometimes treat a colleague, a peer or someone whose attention we want. We inadvertently hurt people, which ultimately hurts our ability to communicate with them and achieve our best results. I don't mean to be unkind and I'm sure you don't either. But it's easy to forget the vulnerabilities that we all have.

Here are three concrete ways to be kind and, in the process, become a better communicator.

1. Look for the best ideas in someone 's point of view.

I once was in a graduate seminar with the dean of the school. It was a small class of about 15 students. Many of the students were eager to shine in front of the dean, whose recommendations to doctoral programs were highly sought after.

One of the first days in class, a fellow student made an argument about the topic at hand. Another student jumped in and began to tear apart the first student's argument, almost gleefully pointing out all the flaws in thinking. The first student slumped in his chair.

Then the dean intervened. "That's not what we do here," he said. "We build on what each other says; we don't tear it down."

That one comment changed the tenor of the class for the rest of the semester. We listened better and more deeply to one another because we had to find something in each person's argument to build on. We had to treat one another's ideas with kindness and respect. The dean's rule made for better, more enlightening discussions.

Feeling dismissed is not limited to graduate students.

An executive at one organization once told me how discouraging it is to attend staff meetings and watch people's reactions to their colleagues' proposals for projects. She said: "The conversation disintegrates into asking if the objective is really an objective or whether it's an outcome. Sometimes people will actually say, 'your proposal went over the page limit or you coded your proposal wrong.' They don't see the bigger picture and what the organization is trying to accomplish. It's really frustrating."

Good communications starts with openness to people's ideas and new ways of thinking. In your staff meetings, use the dean's rule--build on what someone else says, don't tear it down. Take a leadership role in instituting this rule. It's okay for people to disagree with one another. But make it a priority to find something useful in what each person says.

When you take the best of people's points of views you show that you value their contribution, which helps your relationship with them. When you take the time to really listen to someone else, rather than think about what to say next or what's wrong with their argument, you'll likely learn something as well.

2. Include people.

There are organizations I know whose staffers travel in packs. When they go to national conferences, they arrive together, sit together and only seem to be in conversations among themselves or a chosen few colleagues or consultants. It's hard to break into the conversation.

The message they are giving, which I believe is unintentional, is that they are in an exclusive club and only certain members are allowed. It comes across as aloof and arrogant. Is that the message that they really want to communicate? Do their communications messages seem equally aloof?

No one likes to be excluded.

Author P.M. Forni put it this way: "One of our strongest yearnings is to be accepted by others."

In his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct Forni suggests that when you are at a social gathering you choose conversation topics that everybody attending can enjoy. Make it a point to include new people in your conversations. Summarize the contents of an ongoing conversation for a newcomer.

When you bring new people into your circle, there's a good chance that you'll learn something new. The person you welcome in could have fresh ideas--ones that you don't hear when you talk to the same people all the time.

3. Learn someone else's "language."

When you travel to a non-English speaking country, it's a sign of respect to learn a few words of the native language. It shows that you care to make an effort to speak with people in their language rather than simply expecting them to speak English.

The same idea applies while communicating with any group outside of the usual people you talk with every day.

Not long ago, I wrote a report on a project that paired radio stations with community agencies to produce stories on health issues.

At one site, the reporter took the time to learn the "language" of the people she planned to interview. The reporter was preparing a story on domestic abuse in the Latino community. Before she began her interviews, she spoke with the executive director of a shelter for women fleeing abusive relationships.

The reporter learned that the women she wanted to interview did not use terms like depression or mental illness. Clinical terms like that turned them off. They did say things like they felt blue or they were down in the dumps. The reporter made an effort to use those phrases when she interviewed people for her radio segment.

Knowing the right language to use helped the reporter establish a rapport with these women and better tell their stories.

When you take the time to learn someone else's language you are showing them respect and kindness. It is likely that they will respond to that kindness by paying attention to your message.

So try one of these ways to be kind: Take the best of someone's point of view, include people in your gatherings or learn someone else's "language." It will make someone's day, you'll feel good and your ability to communicate more fully with others will improve too.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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