“I’m a terrible communicator. People have been telling me that for years—my manager, my co-workers, my wife. I guess that’s just the way I am.”
A statement like that is one of two things: a cop-out rationalization for not trying to be a better communicator or (more likely) a firmly held belief that it’s true. I am bad at it. Maybe I was born that way. I’m good at other things, but not communicating. I guess I’m stuck with being a bad communicator.
It’s a futile sort of belief about ourselves, that we’re just stuck, that improvement and change are—at best—unlikely after all this time.
It’s how I am. Oh well.
If you’ve ever said something like that to yourself, I have some good news: you’re not a fixed, stuck, unchangeable being. In fact, you’re changing all the time. There are, of course, those visible physical changes we all notice, but the kind of change that’s going on all the time runs far deeper than that. I’m talking about changes to your essential self—your outlook, your perspective, your abilities, and (in fact) your brain. Everything is changing constantly, which means if you thought you were a fixed being, a terrible communicator for all eternity, there’s no reason to stay there.
Old Dogs and New Tricks
Once upon a time, neuroscientists believed that our brain was a static organ, that it didn’t change much after we hit adulthood. We believed we really couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. But in recent years, thanks to advances in technology that allow researchers to examine brains in ways never before possible, it appears that is entirely untrue. The brain isn’t fixed after all, neuroscientists now tell us. It’s creating new neurons and new neural pathways throughout all our lives, almost up until the time we die. That means we keep learning, and our brains adapt and grow based on what we learn.
This phenomenon is called “neuroplasticity,” and it means that what we think about and focus on reshapes our brains, literally—growing new neural pathways and expanding brain regions. One remarkable example of this that I’ve read in several credible places is about research done on taxi drivers in London.1 In order to get a license to drive a cab in London, drivers must memorize the 25,000+ streets of the city, and preparing for the exam takes at least two years. Research done on cab drivers who passed the test shows that the parts of their brains associated with spatial navigation are noticeably larger than normal and that the longer they drive cabs in London, the bigger and more active those regions become!2
Okay, so you’re not planning to move to London, much less drive a cab. What does neuroplasticity mean for you? It means you have the potential to grow, change, and develop in whatever ways you set your mind to—communicating, for one (or cooking, calculus, map-reading, or whatever else you’d like to be better at). You’re not stuck with what you “think of as (your) inalterable essence,” as Marshal Goldsmith describes it in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.
If you think that your “inalterable essence” is that you’re simply a bad speaker, that you’re a victim of unconquerable introversion, that you’re hopelessly inept in meetings, or anything else along those lines, it’s time to reconsider that self-limiting view.
Many factors that contribute to the profile of a “bad communicator” are simply bad habits—things like talking too quickly, interrupting, speaking too softly, and not listening. Like many other bad habits, you can decide to change your habit (because, remember, you’re not a fixed being).
Changing bad communication habits isn’t rocket science. If you don’t listen to others closely or respectfully, start listening more intently. If you’ve been told you speak at a million miles an hour, slow down. If you’re the person who usually hangs back in meetings, speak up! If you interrupt frequently, stop yourself. If you’re the person no one can ever hear, start shouting. (It will sound too loud to you; it will sound normal to everyone else.)
I’ve heard it said that it takes 21 days to adopt a new habit. I’m not sure whether that’s social science or folklore, but it seems likely that the more you do something, the easier it gets, and 21 times sounds like a good goal. Pick a communication habit you know you should break, and for 21 days, do the opposite of what you normally do. Shout instead of whisper. Bite your tongue instead of interrupt. Voice your opinion rather than hunker down in silence. Whatever it is you know you’re bad it, make a determination to do the opposite, and do it.
Simple, Not Necessarily Easy
It sounds simple because it is. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Turning any “bad” habit into a better one is always a challenge.
It gets easier if you stop to think about what’s behind “bad” communication habits. That is, if you know why you don’t speak up, why you interrupt, etc., it’ll be easier to remedy the problem. So here goes. Every bad communication habit springs from the same root cause—not focusing on what the audience needs. Interrupters aren’t interrupting because they think the person they’re speaking to will benefit somehow from their interruption. They interrupt because they themselves get something out of doing so—like the satisfaction of being heard, of correcting someone, or of simply trumping the moment. The super-quiet speaker isn’t murmuring because he thinks that’s what the audience wants; he’s doing it so he can remain in the background or perhaps even so he can save energy. People who talk super-fast are letting ideas and information rip at the speed of thought—their speed, not the speed of the audience’s ability to take it in.
Thinking about communication from our own perspective (what we need rather than what the audience needs) is a very normal motivation. We think first about ourselves most of the time, and it’s a completely normal thing to do. Not, perhaps, our very best selves, but normal.
To make it easier to simply break bad communication habits, we can think about how our communication habits affect others—how others benefit when we speak up, or let them talk, or listen fully, or slow down.
It’s a new year, a time many of us decide to do something differently “from now on.” Becoming a better communicator could be your commitment for the New Year. It’s a three-step process:
- Identify one communication habit you know you want to change. Because you’re not a fixed being, the prospects for change are excellent!
- Consider the impact to the audience of this one bad habit, just the way it is. How does whatever you usually do affect your listener(s)?
- For 21 days, consciously do the opposite of what you usually do. If you mumble, enunciate. If you whisper, shout. If you interrupt, wait your turn. If you’re reticent, insert yourself.
This could be your year. Imagine your next performance review: “Excellent communication skills—much improved! Keep up the great work!”
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PhD and Richard Mendius, MD. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2009, pp. 6-7)
- Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade Meng Tan (New York: Harper One, 2012, p. 18)
Susan de la Vergne is a writer who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new book, Peaceful Under Pressure, will be out in winter 2015. Other books by Susan, including Engineers On Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, are available from Amazon. More about Susan at www.SusandelaVergne.com.