How “WOKE” are You in your Communication?

How “WOKE” are You in your Communication?

Recently I saw a post written by someone who was completely fed up with the way people were reading their post.  His statement insisted that “he was not responsible for the way other people interpreted what they said.”  Clearly, he was frustrated by being misunderstood and negatively judged.  No one likes to be misunderstood or judged because of it.  So here is my question, “Are you responsible for how other people hear what you say?” Another way of asking the question is, “How woke are you in your communication?”

I believe this is an important question because right now we are having important conversations that matter.  Black Lives Matter.  Blue Lives Matter.  All Lives Matter.  But how we communicate also matters.  In a time when there is significant discussions taking place around topics like race and privilege, we need to consider not just the content of what we are saying, but also how other people are interpreting what we are saying.  How can we get better at communicating, especially when critical conversations are taking place?

Communication is like throwing a pass in football.  Until the ball is both thrown and caught, you haven’t successfully communicated.  The person throwing the pass can throw the pass in such a way that it is easy or hard to catch.  They can throw a perfect spiral or throw it end over end like a wounded bird.  They can throw the ball short or over their head.  They can throw it like a bullet or loft it like a balloon.  How one throws the football impacts the success of the pass.

The receiver also has responsibility to catch the pass.  If they don’t keep their eye on the football it is likely to fall to the ground.  If they try to catch the football with their body rather than their hands, it might deflect off their chest and be fumbled.  You get the idea.  The receiver does have a responsibility to “catch” what is being communicated.

Here is the thing.  You can’t control how other people hear what you say.  You also can’t control how they will interpret or decipher your words.  They may jump to conclusions about your intent or motive.  They may even read between the lines and make wrong assumptions.  We have all had this experience and it isn’t pleasant.  It results in damaged relationships that are hard to heal.  It makes the workplace or home a place that is uncomfortable or worse.

If we can’t control how other people hear what we say (catch our pass), are we responsible for how they hear us?  I think we have a lot more responsibility than the person I referred to at the opening of this blog post thinks.  When we begin to communicate to someone about any topic, but especially about topics that are emotionally charged, we have a large responsibility to communicate in such a way that other people can catch it easily.  Keeping with the analogy of the football, it is much harder to catch a pass in the end zone when the time is running out and you are 4 points behind.  There is pressure and emotion and adrenaline pumping through our veins.  We need to do everything possible to make the football catchable!  We can’t just blame the receiver when we make a poor pass.

One of the problems I often see are people making poor passes (poor communication) and they don’t even know they are poor at passing.  We may think that we have done the most amazing job and stating what we wanted to communicate but the other person gets a totally different message than the one we intended.  When my wife calls and says that dinner is on the table I often say, “I’ll be right there.”  She interprets that to mean that I have already gotten up and I’m my way.  What I meant is that I am finishing up an email and can’t get up now and will come as soon as I am able!  The delay in expectation can ruin a marriage!

We can all get better at communication if we desire.  I run relational workshops all around the world and my experience tells me that we need to get “woke” about how we relate to each other.  We need to grow in our relational intelligence.  Here are some ways that we can communicate more effectively so other people can catch our pass:

  1. Understand what is important to the other person before speaking. This is huge.  If we know what is most important to another person, we can communicate in such a way that affirms what is most important to them, even if we disagree with their suppositions.  We know that people are wired around three basic motivations – care for people, doing the right things (process), and getting things done (performance).  If you can discern what is most important to them, you will immediately know how to communicate differently to them.  For instance if they are wired for “care for people” and you are having a conversation about privilege, you might start your conversation with expressing your own desire to see all people cared for equally so no one is left out or is neglected.  You would do this prior to stating something that might be seen as opposing that desire.  By doing this, you avoid the possibility of the person assuming you are not caring when you state your facts.
  2. Understand your own motivation and personality. We all have a default style of relating.  You need to understand that your own style may be different from others and might not be effective.  Adjusting your style of relating is relational intelligence.  You shouldn’t expect others to adjust to you.  This post began with a person who was offended because they were judged by others in social media because his post was misunderstood.  I read his post and his approach to communication was very direct and fact oriented without any concern expressed for people.  That is their own style.  If he grew in relational intelligence, he would have realized that his communication couldn’t be caught by others who cared deeply for people.  Did he care deeply for people?  Yes, I believe he did (does), but he didn’t include that in his words.  His pass hit the ground.  Incomplete!  Know your own style of relating and learn how to adjust to others.
  3. Watch the tone and inflection of your communication. Words are only one tool in communication.  Our tone and inflection and even body language carries messages that others are reading.  The great danger in written communication like Facebook and other social media is that we can miss the tone and body language.  You can help by using emojis.  That is what they are there for!  You may hate them, but others need to know the emotion behind your post.  You can soften your words as well to communicate care.  If you know the goal someone is after and you can affirm the goal, do so before you enthusiastically before sharing your contrary point (for people who are wired for performance and winning).
  4. Direct or indirect language. Most people understand that you should avoid words like “you” when you are discussing disagreements because they are accusatory.  But we should also consider using indirect language to avoid drop passes.  Some people avoid being direct so they won’t offend other people.  They use words like “we” and “our” rather than “you”.  They include themselves in the conversation to avoid singling out an individual.  This is something we need to learn to do especially when dealing with others who care deeply for people above other motivations.  Just stating facts can be offensive all by itself simply because directness doesn’t show care for who it might offend, even if you are correct.
  5. Anticipate how they other person will receive your words. Be aware of how your words have the capacity to offend and find away to communicate them without you being offensive.  This is harder than you think because we are often unaware of how we offend others.  Understanding where people are coming from will help you have your pass caught more often.
  6. Avoid triggers that cause conflict.  We all have conflict triggers.  Do you know yours?  You should so they don’t control your emotional response.  When communicating to others, if you know what triggers conflict in others you can avoid a lot of misunderstanding and drop passes.  Some are triggered by simply using the wrong word (vocabulary).  Others are triggered by failing to acknowledge the pain of other people.  Some are triggered by how long it takes for people to get what they are saying.  These triggers are connected to our primary motivations.

We all can grow and develop our relational intelligence so we can successfully complete more passes.  So often we are throwing passes to fast, to far, and then wonder how others can’t catch what we mean.  If you want to be understood, learn to understand other people.  This is why at Consentia Group, we love what we do.  Nothing is more satisfying than seeing people “woke” to how other people are so different from them and seeing them learn how to relate more effectively.

Bruce Terpstra

Our President, Dr. Bruce Terpstra, has 36 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a veteran of 17 years in denominational leadership and developed more than 70 new churches in the New York metro area and has given oversight to almost 400 pastors. He holds a doctorate in Leadership Development and is also the founder of 3KeyCoaching and the author of Three Passions of the Soul.