2 Simple Rules For Extraordinary Communication

In my last column, I spoke about the miracle of communication: how utterly astonishing it is that we can talk to each other at all.

Seriously, we should just be going around amazed all the time: “For real?! You can understand what I’m saying right now?!?”

But we don’t. Instead, we use this incredible and precious gift, this absolute and total wizardry… to argue.

We argue with each other all the time. We can’t help it. It’s like the only way we could be entrusted with this magical ability to communicate was if we were never able to appreciate its true power.

I’d like to change that.

Let’s start with the purpose of arguing.

Be honest: most of us argue to win. But as French essayist Joseph Joubert said, “the aim of any argument or discussion should be not victory, but progress.”



So how can we shift from one to the other? For that, we need to talk about how we argue: the purpose of speaking, and the purpose of listening.

Here are my two simple rules to stay focused on progress rather than victory:

First, when you speak, your aim should be not to convince, but to communicate.

Second, when you listen, your aim should be not to determine whether you agree, but to determine whether you understand.

Like I said, simple rules. But there’s a lot to them.

Let’s start with the first one. Usually when we’re in an argument, we’re trying to win the other person over to our side, to get them to change their mind.

Can you remember the last time someone tried to change your mind about something? How did it feel? Were you like, “Hey, awesome, someone’s trying to get me to change my mind!” or were you more like, “Hey, back off, a**hole!”?

For most people, the answer would be the latter. In fact, research shows that when two people with opposing views try to convince each other, each person becomes more entrenched in their original viewpoint, not less.

When we’re trying to convince someone that our viewpoint is correct, it really shows. Our choice of language, our tone of voice, our subtle or not-so-subtle judgment of the other person -- all of these come through, loud and clear.

But consider instead how you might choose to communicate if you were crystal-clear that your purpose is not to get the other person to agree with you, but to get the other person to understand the view from where you stand.

All of a sudden, our framing changes from condescending (“What you don’t seem to get is…”) to clarifying (”Let me share my thinking with you so you can understand where I’m coming from…”).

The desired outcome from talking is only half the equation, though -- and arguably the less important half. More important is the desired outcome from listening.

And this is where the second rule comes in.

When we listen to determine whether we agree, we’re also listening to determine whether we disagree. And when we do that, we pounce on any inaccuracy, inconsistency, or incoherence -- anything that allows us to tell the other person that they’re wrong and we’re right. In fact, we often use the time the other person is speaking to formulate our rebuttal.

But when we listen to understand, everything changes. It doesn’t matter if we will never agree on this topic. All of a sudden, our framing changes from combative (“That’s wrong because…”) to questioning (“Can you help me understand why you feel that way?”).

But, Kaila, if I still don’t agree, what difference does it make whether I understand?

It makes all the difference.

The truth is, our need to be understood is greater than our need to be right.

Being seen and heard and valued for who we are gives us the psychological safety to sit with disagreement.

Speaking to convince doesn’t work because none of us wants to be sold to. And listening to disagree doesn’t work because it prevents the other person from feeling understood.

Two rules. Simple -- but not easy. Give them a go, and let me know how you get on.

2 comments about "2 Simple Rules For Extraordinary Communication".
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  1. Kristyne Bischof from Effectv, April 27, 2022 at 8:49 a.m.

    I found this very enlightening. It's taken me some time to shake the need to be right, or probably more important to me-- to point out to someone when they are wrong, especially when they are in a position of power and perhaps taking us down a path I disagree with. Disagreements can be very uncomfortable BUT I find it so invigorating when I feel that I'm heard, not because of a slam-dunk argument, but because the other person nodded, listened and communicated back to me some sort of message of understanding. I also love to find out what someone else truly believes in. I think it always breeds a closer connection, and that connection, I think, is something to value...especially in these devisive days. Thank you for writing this. 

  2. Kaila Colbin from Boma replied, August 11, 2022 at 4:26 a.m.

    Hi Kristyne,

    I only just saw this wonderful comment — thank you so much! I'm glad you found the column useful.

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