By Bill Murray and Gretta Keene
Relationships lie at the heart of a business. As psychotherapists, we have observed that effective communication promotes healthy relationships. And healthy relationships will improve the outcome, whatever challenges your business is currently facing.
We teach our clients this important and often overlooked principle of effective communication: Everyone is in their own movie.
We all tend to assume that others are experiencing life in the same way we are. In fact, that’s why we’re often puzzled—or outraged—by other people’s words and actions. Their behaviors don’t make sense in our movie, so we label them wrong or bad or stupid or worse.
But if we could see the other person’s inner movie, follow the plot, and hear the soundtrack, it would become clear. We might not agree with the movie’s premise, we might dispute the motivation assigned to the various characters, but we could understand how it all fits together.
Covid-19 is spreading, leaving economic turmoil in its wake along with massive amounts of anxiety and confusion. If there were closed captioning for everyone’s inner movie, we might read [ominous music] as a description of most soundtracks.
It is more crucial than ever for business leaders to keep in mind the principle everyone is in their own movie, as they communicate with employees, customers, and vendors and keep their relationships—and businesses—as healthy as possible.
This means that, rather than assuming we know how others are experiencing this crisis, we recognize that everyone is taking in information differently and from different sources, and interpreting it in different ways, depending on their background and previous life experience.
How can you put this principle into practice? Here are some suggestions:
• Ground yourself in the present moment. We’re not exempt from the distortions caused by fear and dread. While it’s important to bring clear-eyed planning to worst-case scenarios, fear-driven responses (often described as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn) emerge from a different part of the brain—one that short-circuits thoughtful communication and perspective-taking.
• As a way to dispel a focus on fear, ground yourself in the present moment. That’s what the practice of mindfulness is all about. Here is a link to some practical instruction, Mindfulness in Business: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BDziasyH0.
• Be curious and kind. Fear is a natural enemy of curiosity. The panic of “I don’t know what to do” and the single-minded reaction of “I’ve got to do this” leave no space for the openness and explorative interest that comprise curiosity. But curiosity, coupled with compassion, is essential for effective communication.
• Start with yourself. Imagine that a kind and interested friend—someone you trust—is asking you about your needs and concerns because they simply want to understand what life is like for you just now. Allow your thoughts and feelings to emerge and simply notice them without judging them as bad or stupid or wrong. They just are. That’s your movie.
• Use the same approach with others. People tend to respond well to conversations that begin with this sort of kind curiosity. A second step reinforces the effectiveness of the communication—the skill of paraphrase.
• Paraphrase. We teach couples a technique we call Speaker-Listener to improve their overall communication skills. An essential element is learning how to paraphrase accurately.
The person who is the speaker relates some aspect of their inner experience—their movie—a few sentences at a time. The person who is the listener is required, first, to listen. Then the listener must put into their own words what it is they understood the speaker to have said.
Our final suggestion regarding effective communication is an adaptation of a tried and true sales technique: Yes, and . . .
Curiosity has elicited the other person’s experience—their concerns, hopes, and needs (their movie). Paraphrasing has insured that you understand accurately. “Yes” indicates that you see those concerns, hopes, and needs as valid. Too often, though, what follows “Yes” is “but,” which sets up a dynamic of conflict. It can be experienced as, “I understand your needs; however, my needs take precedent.”
“Yes, and” places both people’s concerns, hopes, and needs side-by-side.