Leadership: Communication - The 3 Ways of Talking

Think about how many times someone stood in front of a large group that had you as a member. Recall when such people talked to the left of you, the right of you and over your head. They might have yelled, screamed and threatened, but they just did not seem to be talking directly to you. These folks specialize in ordering you around, rather than explaining the reasons for the task.

No one likes to be threatened. It usually causes us to tune out the speaker. I went through countless speeches, lectures and harangues like this during my 26 years of military service, active and reserve. If we poor, dumb swine didn't do this or that, we would all be in trouble.

Maybe these events had an initial short-term impact on me in my youth, but on reflection, I made an important discovery. Whoever the "they" at the time might have been, they couldn't put us all into the brig. Think about it. There would be no one to do the work if we were all in the slammer breaking up the big rocks to create gravel. After a time, I came to the conclusion that the best thing for me to do was find the kernel of the thought that was being yelled at me and shoot to do that thing, whatever it might have been.

This is a type of communication that I now choose to define as "talking at" people. Ideas are sent flying, but no return communication is solicited. This leads to frustration on the part of the audience and diminished performance toward the goal or goals being spoken about.

The next type of communication style that I would like to discuss is the "talking to" kind of interaction. My perception is that it is a more preferable form of interaction. This comes from the fact that it is being directed to an individual, or at most a small group. I use this type of mechanism for sharing concerns, outlining courses of action and offering constructive advice.

Although the thrust of this style of communication is extremely positive in nature, the words are still couched in the words of a lecture to someone or some group. Short shrift is usually given to the concept of feedback as a determinant of successful communication. During the past several years, I have taught a number of courses that involved communication and decision-making skills. One of the keys to success in each of those skills involves the successful use of feedback, as a tool to guide the discussion of the concept and the actions that are desired from the communication or the decision interaction.

There is a third type of interaction that combines the best of all worlds. This is the concept of "talking with" people. This is the interaction between people that includes a degree of give and take on both sides. This skill involves a concept known as active listening. After you present your idea, you look and listen for the clues and cues that your idea has been properly received.

What are some of the components of active listening? Foremost is silence during the moments when the target of your communications effort is replying to you. Two people cannot talk at once.

Right after silence comes the skill of paying attention to the words being spoken. Do not be thinking of your response to the other person at the same time that he or she is speaking. You can miss important parts of the other person's thoughts. Paying attention means just that.

Once the other person has stopped, you can begin your assessment of feedback, which you are delivering in response to their feedback. Do not think that this is any easy thing to do. I have been working on this problem for over 20 years, and I am still a work-in-progress.

Another trait to avoid is finishing people's sentences for them. Do not add words to their thoughts. Let them finish in their own way. By injecting your thoughts, you may drive them away from the things they wanted to communicate to you in response to your initial thoughts.

Yet another critical item in the communication interaction that frequently gets trampled in the dust involves the reasons for doing a task. I do not like to be told to do something, "just because …" Like most rational adults, I like to receive data that will help me reach a rational understanding of why a certain course of action is beneficial to me. Since I like to be treated in this way, I work hard to treat others in a manner similar to that which I would like to receive. Seems Biblically simplistic in its reasoning, doesn't it?

The object of talking with someone is to arrive at a mutual understanding of the thought you wish to share. Feedback is critical in honing in on the center of your communication bull's-eye. By actively listening to what is said in response to your message, you can tell whether people are hearing what you are saying.

A commentary on my personal website in March gave my webmaster and me great pause to wonder if we are communicating properly with you, our audience. We asked for your help in finding used equipment and apparatus for a small community in eastern Texas. To say that we were disappointed by the initial response is a great understatement. Of the more than 500 people with whom we shared our words, exactly five responded. I was disappointed. But I will continue to do what I can where I can to help. After many weeks, we located a used pumper in Roxboro, NC. Thanks to the efforts of Chief James Gentry, Chief Dennis Hamm of Smithland, TX, now has a nice 1978 pumper to protect his community. So communication eventually worked in this case.

What have we shared with you in this message? Simply stated, there are three basic ways of communicating with people. You can:

  • a. Talk at them.
  • b. Talk to them.
  • c. Talk with them.

I urge you to go with "c." People like to be an active part of those events that will shape their lives. Do not dictate to people, share with them. The results will be much better in the long run.

Or a least that is what many members of Harry's Gang told me they would like to see. And I thank them again for their advice and guidance.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). He may be contacted through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.