The lesson in a coffee cup that will make you a better communicator

As I arrived, bleary-eyed, at the busy airport terminal for an early morning flight, I had only one thing on my mind – caffeine.

I hadn’t been to this airport before. After going through security I headed straight to the one coffee shop in sight.

There was a queue for ordering, but it could have been worse. A horde of peopIe converged on the cafe after me, and I was relieved I'd reached the line-up just ahead of them. By the time I clasped eager hands around my coffee, the queue snaked away from the cafe's counter across the terminal space.

It was only then, when I moved away from the crowd, that I realised the space opened up to a whole food court containing numerous coffee shops - with no queues and very few customers.  I’d had to battle the hordes for somewhere to sit but here, at these previously hidden outlets, there were plenty of seats.

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I had to chuckle at myself. When I entered the terminal, I was so fixated by my quest for coffee I could only see the one cafe.  Like a sleep-deprived sheep I'd headed straight for the crowd, believing it was my only chance at a caffeine hit before boarding (and after all that, the coffee was only average). I didn’t look further than what was right in front of me, even though logic would suggest a city airport would have more than one coffee shop.

So what does coffee have to do with communication? This incident reminded me of a common trap for many of us. Whether at work or in our relationships with friends or family, we can fool ourselves into believing we're good listeners; skilled at extracting meaning from others. What we're more likely to do is latch onto the obvious comment or facial expression in front of us, when there could be a whole host of other meanings lying just beneath it.

In Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan, the authors describe the "path to action" we commonly take when communicating. We see or hear something, then tell ourselves a story about it based on our own back story and experience. That story might be very different from the facts, but that doesn’t stop us.

We then allow the story to fuel our emotions. We think we’re reacting to the situation when we’re actually reacting to the story we’ve told ourselves. That reaction then leads us to take a particular course of action, which might be completely at odds with the facts at the heart of the matter.

What stories are you telling yourself that get in the way of healthy communication? It's important to clarify the facts first, before your story leads you to do or say something that takes the situation in the wrong direction and potentially harms the relationship.

If I hadn’t spun myself the line that the airport cafe must be the only one in this hemisphere, I would have avoided a lengthy queue and enjoyed a better coffee in a quiet environment. 

Outstanding communication skills are much more than a "nice to have" if you want to succeed in your career, in business and in life.  Rather than wasting time on misunderstandings, be the one who takes the communication back to the facts.

Get curious, clarify, truly listen to the other person and aim to reach a shared meaning rather than firing yourself up on your own version of the story. Not only will you build your own credibility, you'll be adding a huge amount of value for those around you.