Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to communicate something important to another person, only to find that the more you talk the less they understand?
If your answer is “no” then I’m going to assume that you have never tried to teach a teenager how to drive a car.
No matter how critical or clear you are in your advice/instruction, the driver will have a difficult time hearing it if she/he is not in a good place. Perhaps this is an obvious observation to make. It follows that when we are in times of stress, information is difficult to hear. Brain science has proven that when our nervous system is triggered into a flight or fight reaction, we can’t think clearly.
The emotional centers of our brain (the primal, animalistic part) flood our brain with hormones that essentially shut down our ability to use our pre-frontal cortex (the problem-solver part).
“Okay, that’s great about panic, but what does it have to do with regular communication?” –says the interior audience-voice in my head.
So glad that you asked. Space is something that all animals need and that we (as animals) secretly desire from one another.
(Okay, maybe not this kind of space)
What I mean when I say “space” is the feeling that there is plenty of room to move and to think.
Think of what it feels like on a cloudy or particularly windy day (this image will work better for those people who are more environmentally sensitive). If you have ever experienced an overcast day that suddenly and unexpectedly opens up to sunshine and blue sky, then you have a sense of what a relief space can give. The same is true for windy days. The feeling we get when we turn a corner and get a break from the constant blowing makes us realize how harried we were a second ago. The relief is palpable.
We can give people the same feeling in meetings and in presentations when we take the time to be more methodical and even-paced in our delivery. Often people think that by speaking quickly they will get more across (especially if they are super smart), but the opposite is actually true. The faster they speak, the more likely people will tune them out.
This isn’t about speaking slowly because people are stupid:
The reason is because it gives people a chance to absorb and settle in to what you are saying. The more they trust you (and themselves with you), the less you will have to say to one another in order to convey the intention.
This idea is essentially the premise behind a horse-whisperer. The power of that kind of training is that it involves treating space as a reward for animals, giving them a chance to feel more comfortable with the trainer and allow for a slow closing of the space between them. The same can be done for conversations.
Here are a few basic things that you can start doing right away to gain more trust and be clearer in meetings.
- Speak in an even cadence. What this means is that you try to imagine that you are speaking in a 4/4 time rhythm. It is fast enough to keep everyone interested, but not so fast that people get lost. Kind of like the waltz of communication versus a Miles Davis experimental jazz. If you feel that you are rushing, just slow down the cadence without drawling your words. You will notice a difference in your audience.
- Open up your body. While it may seem silly, the more closed your body is, the less space there is in the room for your audience. If you want your audience to feel open and spacious (and you do), then you will need to take on a physical presence that reflects that openness.
- Meet them where they are. The biggest mistake I have seen people make in meetings and in communication in general is that they tend to make leaps and assumptions about the audience’s understanding or level of interest that are either wishful thinking or flat-out wrong. This is a “feel” part of the work, but basically it follows a lot of the same elements in the horse-whispering world. If the people in the room seem to be retreating (i.e. checking out or getting frustrated), then you need to back up and reset. You can’t force them to get where you want them to go, rather you have to coax them to the place by meeting them exactly where they are.
(You know what I’m talking about)
The result will be greater presence, more trust and a greater likelihood that you will effectively communicate what you want them to hear.
The challenge will be in cultivating your patience and trusting in your audience. Remember, just like teaching a teenager to drive, you aren’t able to control the wheel at all times and the goal is to instill confidence and a clear sense of what you want them to do. The more spaciousness you can give to them in that moment, the more successful they will be in the long run.