A lot has been written about the importance of LISTENING and EMPATHY and with good reason. They form the foundation for any meaningful communication and consequently a meaningful relationship. However there are two more elements which have been highlighted less often, but can make the difference between building a meaningful relationship and undoing one that already exists. These elements are PERMISSION and ACKNOWLEDGEMENT and they work best when combined with good LISTENING & EMPATHY.
Let’s look at PERMISSION. We do not visit people’s homes unless they invite us, we don’t take part in meetings unless we are required to, we don’t visit clients unless the client agrees. Then why is it that we enter more intimate spaces like someone’s personal space without permission? Think about it. Do we give suggestions on personal improvement without being asked? Offer advice on behaviour when unsolicited? Or make judgements about individuals or their actions/choice and insist on sharing it with them, without permission? The answer is often YES. Most of us are guilty of the above actions every once in a while. It doesn’t imply that our intentions are malicious; on the contrary, we often mean well and want to help! But in the process we leave people feeling hurt, upset, angry, annoyed and/or violated, albeit unintentionally, and effectively prevent a relationship from blossoming.
Let’s look at an example. Two colleagues meet at the office cafeteria. They have met a few times and have chatted at the café before, but other than that, they haven’t had many interactions. They happen to meet again after a couple of weeks and following is the conversation that takes place between them:
Allie: Hey, how is your fitness regime going?
Rachel: It’s been OK. I go to the gym twice a week, though the original plan was to go 5 times a week...
Allie: Why? What happened?
Rachel: Nothing in particular. It’s just that there’s so much work at office, by the time I get home I have no energy to go to the gym
Allie: You know there is this great home workout video I came across a few months back. It’s very inspiring! You could try that instead of going to the gym!
Rachel: Well, may be. But I find home workout videos overrated.
Allie: But this one’s very good! And you don’t even have to go to the gym; you can do it at home. You don’t waste any time travelling.
Rachel: Hmmm. But going to the gym ensures that I have somebody to work with and it’s customized.
Allie: But at least have a look at the video. How will you know unless you try it?
Rachel: err… OK, may be... How is your team project coming along?
Does that conversation sound familiar? It’s a conversation all of us have at different times and with different people. The subject may change but the pattern remains the same.
So let’s see what’s happening here. It is obvious that there has been a discussion about Rachel’s fitness between the two of them, sometime in the past. As they meet now Allie wants to simply check on Rachel’s progress. Allie’s interest, in Rachel, in itself shows good intent and helps foster a sense of comradery between the two. Clearly Allie cares about Rachel enough to remember what’s going on in Rachel’s life. But do you notice that soon after Rachel gives the response to the first question, how Allie takes the conversation forward? What’s happening at this point is interesting and critical in understanding PERMISSION. While Rachel speaks about how her regimen is not going as planned, Allie has moved on to finding a solution, for what she thinks is Rachel’s challenge. Please note that Rachel hasn’t asked for any opinion or suggestion. Consequently Rachel starts to feel uncomfortable as she views Allie’s unsolicited suggestion as an indication of being judged, for choosing a less effective workout regimen. She sees Allie as crossing an invisible line, entering a space she hasn’t been invited to, while Allie is mostly unaware of this line and rushes in with the enthusiasm of a well-meaning school teacher. As she unwittingly barges in, Rachel politely tries to nudge her back and Allie in the role of a self-appointed solution finder, fails to see Allie’s resentment and annoyance lurking under the surface. When Allie does feel some resistance, she runs in once again, till such time that she finds herself against the invisible door between herself and Rachel, which is now firmly shut. She is eventually forced to give up, feeling a little disoriented, confused and maybe hurt, by Rachel’s less than enthusiastic response to her well-meaning suggestion.
You may have noticed where permission is meant to come into the above scenario. But before we explore PERMISSION let’s take a quick look at something that comes in before permission and that is ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. When Rachel responded to Allie’s question about the progress of her fitness regime, it was Allie’s chance to acknowledge Rachel for her efforts. She should have acknowledged Rachel for taking action. She could say something like ’Well done for enrolling to the gym and working out for all 5 days for the first week’. By doing this Allie acknowledges and appreciates Rachel for what she did do (rather than focusing on what she didn’t), because taking the all-important first action that gets things moving, is where many of us fail and Rachel showed commitment in going through that part. Now in case you are wondering why Allie should care, then you should also ask - if Allie doesn’t care then why make suggestions in the first place? But let’s stick to the assumption that Allie does care. With acknowledgement, Allie has let Rachel know that she genuinely cares.
Moving on from AKNOWLEDGEMENT. Allie has this idea, which she truly believes could work for Rachel. However before she offers this suggestion, it would help to ask if Rachel would like to hear her suggestion. She could say something like ’I sense that you could use some help to stick to your regimen. If its ok with you, may I share a thought that came to mind?’ What’s the worst that could happen? Rachel may say NO. And if she did that, at least Allie would not waste her time giving unwanted advice. On the other hand if she said YES then Rachel would be more willing to consider the suggestion coming her way. Allie should follow up her suggestion (’There is this great home workout video I came across a few months back. It’s very inspiring! You could try that instead of going to the gym!’) with the question ’What do you think?’ By doing that, Allie gives Rachel the space to not take up the suggestion unless she wants to, without any negative impact on their relationship. This example does not imply that Allie has identified Rachel’s issue correctly or guarantee that Rachel will follow Allie’s advice, if she agrees. But that’s not the point, this example is meant to highlight how, at this juncture Allie’s relationship with Rachel is still intact and Allie has been respectful of Rachel’s personal space, which is often an overlooked aspect while communicating.
Coming back to the question about whether Allie really cares enough about Rachel to acknowledge what Rachel has achieved? If the answer to that question is NO, then why she would offer a suggestion to Rachel at all?? The reason could be because Allie wants to be SEEN as knowledgeable or helpful or then she is just getting carried away with her own flow of thoughts; none of which are of any use to Rachel. This can happen especially in conversations with colleagues, with whom, our relationship is not yet deep. But watch out! Even when the intention is to help, we could be treading on toes inadvertently. As the saying goes - The road to hell is paved with good intentions!
Let us now reflect on our own behaviours. How often are we aware of our intent when contributing to a conversation? How often do we ask permission before giving suggestions or opinions to people about personal matters or on matters we have had little to do with. If you are one of the few who are sensitive to these aspects (to your own intent and to others needs) then congratulations, well done! And if you haven’t considered it before, give it a shot now! When someone opens up to us, they are letting us into their lives, they are sharing a part of themselves. This is a precious gift and we have a responsibility to handle it with care. So think before you speak, acknowledge others’ achievements (even small ones) and take permission before making a suggestion or giving an opinion and be the one who lights up the neurons that spark happiness and warmth in people! It works with colleagues, spouses, partners, parents, children, friends, relatives and just about anyone. By doing this, we give ourselves a chance to filter our own responses, assumptions and opinions that we may end up imposing on others. While it may take some conscious effort in the beginning, the more we practice this, the easier it gets. Use this often enough and you will notice how you become a better communicator and help relationships become more fulfilling!
By Divya Thampi