On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

A simple, powerful technique to improve communications – the “convey”

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Communication is at the heart of teamwork, right? Recently, I observed the following.

A management team was trying to make a decision. Two team members kept stating information in support of their respective positions. They each dug deeper and deeper trenches around their positions, even repeating what they had already said to make their case. It was as if each person had made up his mind, wouldn't say anything that didn't directly support his opinion, and couldn't consider alternatives. Mega phone talk iStock 000012200353XSmall

I'm sure you've witnessed this type of communication pattern. I see it frequently, and unfortunately, a team can't make optimal decisions if they are communicating in this manner. The good news is there is a simple technique that can be used to help reduce this cycle of entrenchment. Let's call it the "convey."

Why do team members push their point of view, only share info that supports their view, and appear unreceptive at times to other perspectives? It could be that they have an incentive to "win" the debate. But even when there is no incentive to do so, we see this phenomenon. The answer is that people are strongly driven to feel understood.

What does the research tell us? Research by Shigehiro Oishi and others at the University of Virginia has shown that we feel better and more satisfied when we believe we are understood. People do not like to feel (either consciously or otherwise) that you don't "get them," so when they feel that way they use their communications primarily to make their view and opinions very clear to you. Until they feel understood, they will continue to pound away, repeat what is already known, and emphasize their point because they think "you must not get it." Therefore a powerful way to breakthrough this natural but counterproductive response is to effectively convey that you do get it.

Recent research by Nadira Faulmüller from the University of Oxford and her colleagues in Germany makes this very clear. They found that the motivation to be understood can be even more powerful than the motivation to convince others. In a well-designed study published in the Personality of Social Psychology Bulletin, they showed that when people feel understood, they spend less time communicating information in support of their position. They can get on with the conversation and no longer need to bludgeon the other party with what psychologists call "preference-consistent" information. Interestingly, they found that individuals' use of preference-consistent information was driven far more by the need to be understood than by whether the other person agreed with them! You can have the same opinion that I do, but if I believe that you don't understand my thinking I may still keep giving you the "facts."

Moreover, Frances Chen and her research associates at Stanford found that asking questions that indicate you are interested in trying to understand the other person's point of view can change the communication dynamics. When you ask questions, people become more open to engage in the conversation, act in a more receptive manner, and develop a more positive impression of you.

How to "convey." The research is clear. Conveying that you "get it" is a powerful way to improve team communications. Conveying involves reflecting your understanding of the other person's opinion, point of view, or even their feelings. No BS, no bluffing, just communicating that you understand them. So how can we do it effectively?

  • To convey effectively, you first need to listen carefully. If you are thinking ahead or focusing on crafting your rebuttal, the other person will begin to sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons ("wah, wah, wah"). If you don't listen carefully, you can't convey effectively. Period.
  • If the person's perspective isn't clear, ask good open-ended questions that help the person more clearly articulate their opinion and rationale. In fact, even if you think you understand their perspective, based on Chen's research it may still be a good idea to ask a few questions.
  • Try to summarize the other person's position and listen for either confirmation or correction. Note that it is more effective to describe your understanding of their position rather than simply saying that you get it. When someone says "I hear you," what they usually mean is "Please stop talking so I can talk now."
Less Effective... More Effective...
I hear you. So you are saying that the new program should be more likely to...
I understand what you are saying. You believe that if we stop the training effort, then...
  • An "incorrect" convey can still be useful. When I convey incorrectly, it simply allows the person to say, "Not exactly. What I really mean is..." It helps surface their true intent rather than operating on false assumptions. I don't need to be 100% sure of their intent before I convey.
  • There are two types of "conveys" – intellectual (head) and emotional (heart). Intellectual conveying shows you are aware of the person's position. Emotional conveying demonstrates you understand what they are feeling. Both can be valuable.
    • "So you believe that we should shift our resources from project A to project B, effective immediately" (Intellectual convey)
    • "You are getting a lot of pressure from senior leadership to show better results this quarter, and you believe this is the fastest way to do so" (Emotional convey)
  • Note that conveying is not the same as agreeing. In fact, it is particularly important to convey before you disagree. Otherwise, anything you say will be interpreted as "she doesn't get it." Often you can tell that the person believes you don't get it because he repeats his position, speaking slower and louder, as if you just arrived in his country.

Conveying opens a window that allows for healthy disagreement. Using the example above, after I have conveyed effectively, I can then offer my view of how to get better results this quarter without shifting resources from project A. If I said that before conveying, the person would think, "Scott doesn't get it" and proceed to tell me his position again.

Over the years I've taught this technique to thousands of people and watched folks deploy it in countless situations. When you convey effectively it can create a palpable difference in the conversation. The person you are talking with will typically nod (without even knowing it) and may unfold their arms and lean closer to you, all informal cues that they are a little more receptive because at least you seem to get it!

We all convey at times. I'm just suggesting that because it is such a simple, constructive technique, that we use it more often and consciously. We should teach leaders and team members why it is so helpful and how to do it. So today, try to do a little more conveying. Hey, you might even want to try it at home!