Communication is about the meaning that is created in others.
As the basis to many of the more advanced communication techniques, “other-centered communication” is a term I coined while working with big-ego executives and many self-centered people. The technique itself is quite simple. Make the focus of your message right in the center of the other person. When communicating, most people cannot get beyond themselves. They prepare to communicate by asking themselves questions such as: What do I want to say? How should I structure this message? How can I get the other to do what I want? How do I want others to feel or act? What do I do if they push back? Or they might think to themselves: I really want to say this well, or I would like people to think I give good speeches, or I want this toast to really move people. Even worse, as in many business cases, people often don’t even take the time to think about a message before delivering it. They just blurt out whatever it is that needs to be said.
In all of the above situations and probably a hundred more like them, the center, or locus, of the message and the origin of the meaning of any given message lies within the sender. But does it have to? What if we flipped the center of meaning away from the sender and put it into the hands of the receiver instead?
Using other-centered communication means that, before you speak, you will ask yourself: What does my message mean to the other person? Where is the other person coming from and how will my words be interpreted by the other person? In “other centered communication,” the meaning of your words in the listener’s mind is more important than your actual words. As I am sure you have already guessed, the ability to empathize here is critical.
In 1994, I attended the Young Entrepreneurs Organization International Conference in Marina Del Rey, California, where Jack Daly keynoted one of the programs. He had the audience paired up and then he asked one partner to sell a pen to the other partner in one minute. Most of us took out a pen and started selling the benefits and features of the pen: “This is the best pen you will ever buy. It writes great, is disposable, looks amazing, carries the perfect status, is balanced, will write forever, and is relatively inexpensive so you can give it to someone on the spot as a nice gesture.” The list went on, and in essence, just about all of us in the audience said that it was a great pen for a million of reasons.
When the minute was up, Jack asked the audience what approaches we took to sell the pen. The answers in the room were the same – sell, sell, and sell. Then he asked how effective we were. And once again, most answers came back about the same. Very few of us actually sold the pen. He then went on to ask if anybody opened the sales with any questions. For example, questions like: “What are you looking for in a pen? What do you love about pens? What would make you buy a pen straightaway? What do you want to make sure you avoid in making such a purchase?” The room went silent, and we all knew why we didn’t make the sale.
This was a memorable experience and not just because we didn’t ask questions. Jack was making a powerful, illustrative point “we need to get into the mind of the person we are trying to communicate with long before we structure and deliver our message.”
Another way to understand other-centered communication is to adapt your style to your communication partner’s style. For example, consider a situation where you are communicating with somebody who is highly analytical. This person needs a lot of data, likes to ask a million drill-down questions, wants the facts and details, and is easily turned off by superfluous energy. You, on the other end of the spectrum, are highly expressive. You like big-picture thinking and are easily excited by your visions and all the possibilities. Knowing what you know, how should you shape your message?
Other-centered communication suggests that you tailor your messages to the other person’s style. You should design your message to be highly detail oriented. You should move very slowly through each detail and even cite credible sources for every claim you make. You might even offer up something in writing that you can give your analytical partner to read while you are conversing. If you do not know the answers to some questions, do not blow them off and definitely do not make something up on the spot. Apologize sincerely to your analytical partner for not having the answers on your finger tips and make a note to get the questions answered. Such communication requires you to put up with your boredom and get over your impatience and judgment. You must definitely know your audience, but even beyond that, instead of structuring your message to satisfy your own needs and concerns, you must tailor it to meet the needs and concerns of the other.
Another way to practice other-centered communication is by attempting to understand your audience’s logic instead of focusing on your own. How they think or make sense of things is more important than how you think. Other-centered communication advises you to trust and honor people for who they are and encourages you to shape your communication style to fit others’ communication style, not forcing them to tailor to you.
Other-centered communication also means reading the cues that other people send us, and sometimes, it means ending the conversation when the other person wants to. Once, I had a client that typically liked to spend a great deal of time on the phone. He would jump around between three or four topics and allow himself to be interrupted before eventually getting to the point. I usually dreaded phone conversations with him because a fifteen-minute call could easily take an hour. Once, I called him on the phone because I had only one thing to tell him and I wanted to tell him directly instead of leaving a message. To be courteous and stay in rapport, I fully expected our five-minute call to take at least thirty minutes. However, when I got on the phone with him, the conversation went dead quickly. I could tell from his curt responses that he wanted to get off the phone. After taking about 20 seconds to readjust, I said what I needed to say and asked him another question just to maintain rapport. I then thanked him and hung up. As I learned later, it was the right thing to do. My client wasn’t being his normal self that day and he needed to get off the phone quickly. I picked up on his cues, adjusted my communication style to his, and gave him what he needed.
From a completely different perspective, I was in the office of a long time client not too long ago and I saw the company’s founder, whom happened to be my client’s father. Now, the founder was a great guy. He had been around literally forever and was smart as can be. Although he had a very important job, he was a couple steps removed from the everyday operations (as he should be, since he had his son running the place and several very competent people running things under his son). In any case, I was in a bit of a hurry. I had to leave and get on to my next appointment when the founder called me into his office. He wanted to check on things. So at first, he asked me a couple questions that I answered quite quickly. Quickly and accurately, I may add. I just bottom-lined everything for him; I needed to go. But then he started telling me a story. Oh no, I thought to myself, ten minutes into the first story, the founder started the build up for a second story! I knew this was going to be a much longer conversation than I expected. Should I be polite and listen or should I interrupt and excuse myself? I thought about it for a minute and realized that telling stories was his way of imparting important information onto me. He didn’t call me in to ask me a couple of questions; he called me in to tell me a couple of important things that had been on his mind. His stories were his way of communicating. Once I understood his needs, I relaxed and enjoyed his stories for the next twenty minutes. Then, I repeated his main points back to him so he felt heard and I politely excused myself. Although I was late to my next meeting, I had a terrific interpersonal experience and a wonderful conversation with the founder, who went on to sing praises about me for a very long time.
Other-centered communication is easy to practice and makes a world of difference to whomever you are communicating with. By using other-centered communication, you will be able to get to the real message, create shared meanings, and build long-term trust and rapport. Other-centered communication is a powerful tool and easy to learn. All it takes is for you to calm down, put yourself into shoes of the others, think about their needs and shift your communication style a bit to match theirs. If you have never done this before, give it a try. The results are amazing. If you already do this regularly, keep it up, and remember to use this practice even when you don’t want to. The world really does need more great communicators.