Guest Post by Broc Edwards
*FLASH* the mental lightbulb went on! I’ve been married for a third of my life and just realized the source of 95% of the communication challenges my wife and I had experienced over the years. I called to tell her the idea and she laughed because it was so spot on.
I’ve read that people process information based on either an internal or external frame of reference. There are shades of grey between the extremes but a person who references externally makes self-evaluations based on what others think. An externally focused person can appear overly sensitive because they often process and hear even mild suggestions or questions as commands or accusations.
At the other end of the spectrum, those with an internal frame of reference tend to focus on only their own thoughts. Not only do they not define themselves by the opinions of others, but they often regard even the strongest suggestions or commands as mere information or neutral input.
That makes complete sense. I have often been confused when my wife would ask what we should do on the weekend and then react as though my brainstormed possibilities were non-negotiable must-dos. This often left her thinking I was insensitive and me feeling completely blindsided.
On the other hand, there have been countless times when she felt I wasn’t listening. The most classic example was when we were on a driving tour of New England. As we passed through villages she would often say, “This is a cute town.” I would agree and keep on driving. I took these comments as simple statements of fact along the same lines as “This is new pavement,” or “That’s a tall tree.” I later discovered what you already know: she wanted me to stop.
For years, she thought I was ignoring very strong requests that were important to her and I was frustrated at having to interpret and guess at what she wanted.
Consider how this might apply to your leadership (I sure did!). How often have you been aggravated or angered when an otherwise bright employee seemed to completely miss your none-too-subtle hints? Ever feel like you are surrounded by overly critical peers and bosses? How often do those around you seem to overreact to your comments and requests?
Simply understanding that I reference internally and my wife and others reference externally allows me to modify my approach and adjust whenever I get a response that is an over- or under-reaction for what I was trying to communicate. This lets me adjust my communication approach in advance depending on the other person’s frame of reference.
Effective communication my problem, not theirs.
I enjoy riding motorcycles, but there is risk involved. It is not my fault if someone turns left in front of me, but that doesn’t make me any less dead. If I want to live to enjoy riding another day I have to take responsibility for anticipating and adjusting to the actions of other drivers. Communication is no different. If someone’s frame of reference doesn’t match mine it is not my fault, but the outcome will still be miscommunication. Sure I could blame them and wait for them to adjust to my style, but that won’t create the results I want. Or I can take ownership for results and adjust and adapt to ensure that my communication style matches theirs.