Our world is full of people, but how many of us are really talking to one other? How many opportunities do we miss because we are afraid to share our thoughts and feelings about the things that matter?
Most of us avoid getting to know people who are outside our immediate circle of family and friends. And when we question how well we actually know the people closest to us, the unfortunate answer may be not well at all. We hide behind the walls we’ve built to keep us secure from people we don’t know well and haven’t learned to trust. And whether we intend to or not, the more we depend on email, voicemail, fax, and other media to share information, the better hiders we become.
Ironically, the only way we can truly be safe and successful is to be in meaningful relationships with other people, not hiding in isolation. We build meaningful and lasting relationships by having meaningful conversations. The way to build support systems, uncover opportunities, or help others is to talk about things that matter on a regular basis with the people around us.
To do this effectively, we need the courage to come out from behind our walls and create an environment that encourages others to open up and communicate. We need to learn and use the following four S.A.F.E. steps to building great relationships.
S=Solicit – be open to others
People will want to talk with you if you show an interest in them and you are open to their opinions. Asking someone questions such as “Where did you grow up?” or “Where are you going on your next vacation?” will reveal more details about this person, and help you find more things in common, than asking “What do you do for a living?”
In most organizations, there is a wealth of ability and talents just waiting to be tapped. But if people aren’t talking, these hidden treasures never come to light. A good way to build a safe environment at work is to be observant and ask questions. If you are a manager, ask your employees about their backgrounds, hobbies, and accomplishments and use the information to the organization’s advantage.
A=Attend – be mentally and physically present
If you want a colleague to open up to you, give him the attention he deserves. Demonstrate with your eye contact and body language that your conversation is the most important thing you are doing at that time. Don’t answer the phone or work on the computer.
Ask questions that drill down and across the topic, you are discussing so you can explore his thoughts from various angles. Regardless of what you hear, don’t judge or criticize. Use discernment to interpret what he is saying, and listen in terms of what you want to accomplish with this relationship.
Another consideration is the physical environment. Is privacy important or is it ok to talk where others can hear? Would a conference room or your office make the other person feel more at ease? Neutral territory and even ground are usually helpful when you are trying to resolve a conflict. Remember that the environment can influence how easily people share their concerns.
F=Focus on what’s important
Many people are afraid to express their feelings or to ask for what they want. Or they simply don’t know how to clearly articulate their thoughts. You have to listen with all of your senses, not just your ears. If you are interviewing a job applicant, notice if he looking at you or around the room. Ask yourself how you feel about the answers he is giving you. If you are hearing the right words but something doesn’t feel right, you can get more information by asking about his feelings on the subject. Try a few open-ended questions and then summarize what you understand you’ve been told.
If an employee complains about one thing then brings up other problems, help him focus on what is most important to him by surgically removing whatever is getting in the way. Don’t let him dwell on things that are not productive to the conversation. And don’t assume, as people often do, that you know what he needs. You’d be amazed at how much you miss when you assume you know what someone is talking about.
E=Encourage Honest Communication
Most people encourage limited communication by their attitudes and behaviors. We condition others to approach us in certain ways by how we respond to their requests for our attention. If your boss is always busy, rushed, or distracted when you approach her, you’ll think twice before you come to her with a problem she should know about.
To encourage honest communication, treat people with respect, even if they are not in the room. Don’t allow finger pointing, gossiping or the use of absolutes such as “always” or “never.” Don’t put up barriers by asserting your rank or talking above their heads. Do let them know that you care about what they are saying and that you will use whatever they tell you for them, not against them.
If a problem arises, don’t punish people for making mistakes when they are trying to do their jobs or help the company succeed. Instead, ask, “What were you thinking about when you did that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” Try no-fault problem resolution meetings. Rather than look for who is at fault, why not find the problem? Bring the problem to the table, not the person to the woodshed. This will give you a better chance of identifying and figuring out together what the problem is and how to fix it. Another benefit to this approach is that once trust is established, people will bring you problems and take ownership of them. This will save you time and the company money many times over.
The key is to demonstrate on a consistent basis that you are there to help in any way you can. Leaders are here to serve, not to be served. Model this behavior and people will come to trust you and your intentions.
Meaningful dialogue takes time and effort. But it is necessary if you want to create quality relationships. What it costs on the front end will pay you great dividends on the back end in terms of enhanced teamwork, quicker problem resolution, and increased individual responsibility. Because you were interested enough in being in dialogue with them, people will work harder for you. They will give you the information you didn’t ask for and didn’t know was out there. They will “cover your back” when you didn’t know it needed covering.
No one gets anywhere without someone else helping them. People who climb the ladder with others pushing them up are happier than those who climb it by any other method. You never know when you might need help and, if you have invested your time in getting to know the people around you, when you need support you’ll know whom to call.
When you master the steps to keeping your communications S.A.F.E., you have the key to tearing down the walls between us, and to building lasting relationships throughout your personal and professional life. What is the value of creating an effective dialogue with those around you at home, in the community, and at work? Priceless!
For additional information contact Encore Consulting Group.
Jim Dawson trains professionals in the successful strategies of leadership, communications, and management. You can reach him at [email protected].