Maya Angelou said “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It occurred to me that this statement applies to more than just conversations or interactions with others. It can be applied to nearly all aspects of life and work. If you want to leave the person you are interacting with feeling good about themselves, or a customer feeling good about your company, attentive interaction is key. Here are the fundamentals:
Be present when they are present.
What comes to mind when a person you are talking to looks at their phone or watch? They aren’t paying attention, or maybe there is something more important for them to tend to. Wherever you are, being fully there is fundamental to building meaningful relationships and maintaining sanity in this ultra-connected world. Think of your attention as a gift that you are giving to another person. Here is an example of how I practice the skill: I have a home office, so my family tends to wander in from time to time when I’m working from home. In the past, I would glance up to acknowledge them, but continue to focus on my work. I have a mission statement that identifies my family as my highest priority. Do you think they felt as though they were my highest priority when they came into my office? Absolutely not. I decided to change this practice and focus on the most important part of my life per my mission statement. Now when they come in, I stop what I am doing and look them in the eyes. Do you think they feel valued now? You bet, even after hearing “no” for the 100th time. This practice allows me to live my core values and mission, while they are feeling valued by their father or husband.
Be an active listener.
Active listening is a very simple technique that has been proven to significantly improve communication. Simply repeat what the person has told you, doing so with your own words. This is most often done in the form of a question. This technique lets the other person know you were listening, and just as importantly, allows them to clarify a misunderstanding. Here is how it might work with your spouse: “Okay, so you are saying you need some additional support with getting the kids ready for school and out the door each day?” The point is to clarify and summarize what the other person has said. This is a very disarming technique and builds rapport with the person with whom you are talking.
Empathize with the other party.
We often mistake empathy with agreement. Empathy is not agreement. It is simply acknowledging the person’s situation or frustration. It’s as simple as saying “Wow, that must be really difficult for you. Tell me more.” Humans are fundamentally communal creatures. We crave validation and recognition. Empathizing is another form of recognition and almost primal to each of us. Unfortunately, it most often takes form in conversation as commiseration. Negativity is a go-to tool for many of us. This seems especially true at work, when talking about something ridiculous the boss is requiring, or comments about management being clueless that ring throughout corporate America’s corridors. It is often difficult to take the high road in these conversations, but your integrity will remain intact if you choose the high road. Real empathy is our ability to truly see from another person’s perspective. The metaphorical term is putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. I want to emphasize that this does not mean agreement with what the other person is saying. It is simply seeking the alternative perspective. Empathy is a fundamental component of developing meaningful relationships.
I have learned many lessons through coaching but the most important lesson has been the value of a good question. Questions allow the other person to work through the answers. If we offer answers instead of asking questions we have denied the other person of a real learning experience. The struggle to come up with a solution is where the learning takes place. This is the reason we need to allow our children to struggle. Not doing so deprives them of the learning experience. Here are seven questions from a book called The Coaching Habit:
- What is on your mind?
- And what else? (follow-up to question 1)
- What’s the real challenge here for you?
- What do you want? (my personal favorite)
- How can I help?
- If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
- What was most useful for you?
Develop your own list of questions that can help the other person think through a challenge or situation. Avoid the temptation to solve their problem with your experience when there is an opportunity to teach. This is especially important if you are in a leadership position.
Some of the conversations we have with people can get uncomfortable but if we use the fundamentals laid out in this article, the other person will remember how you made them feel. If we were present, practiced active listening, demonstrated empathy, and asked questions, they will feel validated and heard whether you agreed with them or not.