Listen! Do you smell something?

images-7The movie Ghostbusters has more great lines than perhaps any other movie, in my opinion.  You know, lines like, “I am terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought”, which describes me at my own wedding.  But this line, “Listen!  Do you smell something?“, was not only funny but also oddly wise.  Looking at this line a little closer can help us be better communicators.

That line is funny because when someone yells “listen!” we think they mean for us to listen to the environment, and assume they will follow it with “Do you hear something”?  But he meant “listen to ME“, and wanted to make sure they heard his next question.

This brings us to the wisdom buried under the comedy in this line.  When someone else is speaking, we inherently and spontaneously tend to under-value what they are about to say, without even consciously realizing it.  The line is funny because of this underlying assumption.  We never even consider he means to listen to him, so we automatically assume we should be listening to the environment (basically, everything but him).  That is why we are so surprised when we are being asked to smell the environment instead of listen to it.  He only said “listen” because he wanted us to listen to his next line, not listen to the environment.

When we speak, however, we are so concerned with people listening to us.  In fact, we all consistently *demand* that people do it.  We check to make sure they can hear us, that they aren’t distracted by the environment, and are not doing something else.  We check on everything that is centered around us getting to speak.  But rarely do we check in with them to see if what they heard was what we were actually trying to say.  In fact, if an alien came down to earth and watched how often we excoriate people to listen to us but how rarely we double-check what they heard, that alien might think we really only wanted to speak, and not be understood.  And maybe, just maybe, that alien would be right…

I’m going to assume you want to be heard AND understood (or at least you genuinely think you do), and that’s why you’re still reading…

Just like Ghostbusters, in business & in life, it takes a team.  And for a team to work effectively, the number one thing they need is effective communication.  They may be great individual contributors, but without communication they will never be a great team. defines communication as:

the interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information

And Interchange is further defined as

to put each in the place of the other

I absolutely love this phrasing.  To put in the place of the other means, in order to communicate, you have to take what someone just said to you and displace your own thinking & replace it with theirs, at least temporarily.  What a responsibility!  Think about that when you are communicating.  It is so easy to focus solely on wanting *them* to understand *me*, but if you think about it in terms of an interchange, where things have to travel in BOTH directions, it changes the whole idea.  You may choose to be silent, for example, rather than try to convince someone of your opinion, if you know it means you have to truly absorb their opinion as well (again, at least temporarily).  There is also an equitability implied in this interchange.  So if you are the superior in the communication (parent, boss, leader), remember that if you didn’t accept something back from them, if you didn’t get some of their thinking “in place of” yours, then you DIDN’T communicate. You may have transmitted, but you didn’t communicate.

Using accurate words, not only to others but to yourself, is also important (I will talk about the real impact & importance of word choice in a later post).  If your purpose is to transmit, and not communicate, own that & be honest with yourself and the person you are transmitting to.  If you don’t do that all the time, and you do it nice & respectfully when you do have to do it, they will understand.  And if they don’t, well they are transmitting back to you too, and you can learn from that as well.

Try this “interchange method” of communication out, and please let me know in the comments if you have any revelations.  In the meantime, be forewarned:

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

–George Bernard Shaw

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