Do you remember where you were on January 28th, 1986?
It was a cold, clear Tuesday morning as nearly 1 in 5 Americans turned on their TVs to watch the tenth launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
What drew so many viewers was the presence of high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space.
If you recall, Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing everyone on board, prompting a national week of mourning by President Ronald Reagan and grounding the space shuttle program for three years.
The greatest tragedy of this disaster was that it was entirely preventable.
Engineers knew there were problems with the O-rings which were not designed for launch with the unseasonably cold temperatures that day, but couldn’t agree on what to do. The transcripts of the actual conversations between NASA’s leaders and the engineers at Morton Thiokol, the designer of the space shuttle’s fuel system, hours before their fateful decision was made are filled with personal attacks, acrimonious outbursts, and angry accusations. The transcripts conclude with the fuel system’s lead engineer, who strongly disagreed with proceeding with the launch, being dismissed from the call.
As author Bill Zipp concludes in his blog post on the leadership implications of the tragedy, “The Challenger disaster was not an engineering failure. It was a human relations failure.”
The High Cost of Dysfunctional Communication
As tragic as it was, negative, far-reaching consequences like this aren’t limited to high profile space exploration ventures.
The inability to engage in the art of productive conversation has ruined marriages, ended longstanding friendships, and driven families apart for generations.
A Pew Research study of over 10,000 adults found that Americans today are more polarized than we’ve ever been since the Civil War, something we’ve witnessed so vividly during this election season.
The result: we spend most of our time in echo chambers, consuming media and conversing with people who share what we already believe and we shy away from genuine dialogue with anyone with opposing views and opinions.
In short, we’ve lost the skill of good conversation.
How did we get here?
Technology has clearly played a leading role.
In an article in The Atlantic magazine titled, “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation” author Paul Barnwell writes:
I have come to realize that conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills. When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smartphones. When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they should exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet (or at least without Google). When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners. It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain a confident coherent conversation?
When you combine this polarized state of our culture with the incredible distraction of smartphones and other technology, you can see we how we’ve lost the art of face-to-face conversation.
Do you remember the last time you had a great conversation?
Chances are you walked away feeling one or all of these emotions: engaged, challenged, or inspired, and most likely, understood and like you feel you’ve made a genuine connection. And despite this unprecedentedly polarized culture we live in, there’s no reason why most of our conversations can’t end this way.
4 Simple Steps to Improve Your Conversations
Based on my own experience along with some fascinating research, I have found that adopting these 4 simple habits will help you walk away from any conversation having made a better, more genuine connection. And to help you remember each habit, I created a simple acronym: PEAR.
P = Put your phone away.
A 2014 study by Virginia Polytechnic Institute titled ‘The iPhone Effect’ shows how the mere presence of a smartphone can ruin a conversation.
In an experiment with 200 participants, researchers found that simply placing a mobile communication device on the table or having participants hold it in their hands was a detriment to their conversations. A similar experiment was conducted in the U.K. with strikingly similar findings.
Any time the phone was visible, the quality of the conversation was rated as less fulfilling when compared with conversations that took place in the absence of mobile devices. People reported having higher levels of empathetic concern when phones were not visible.
What we’ve long suspected is now backed by real data: When you’re meeting someone for conversation, put your phone on airplane mode and put it out of sight. (This may sound harsh, but if you just can’t bring yourself to do this, you’re addicted to your phone, and you need professional help!)
E = Engage your body and mind—be present.
Two points to unpack:
1. How we use our body has a significant impact on our communication.
Based on extensive research, UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian concluded that only 7% of communication takes place through words while 38% takes place through tone of voice and the remaining 55% take place through body language.
If you’re skeptical at the thought of such a small percentage of your message coming from words, consider this scenario: You come home from work and notice your teenage daughter standing in the kitchen with her arms folded and a deep scowl on her face. When you ask, “Is everything OK?” she responds in an angry voice, “I’m fine!” Are you more likely to assess her mood by her words or by her body language and voice tonality? To me, the “Mehrabian Effect” shows how much we tend to underestimate the influence of posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and voice intonation in everyday communication.
2. Engaging your mind–shutting off your internal mental dialogue–is one of the hardest things to do during a conversation. Why is it so difficult to be consistently present?
Consider this: the average person talks at a rate of 225 words per minute BUT we can listen at up to 500 words/minute. So our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words with distractions, especially as our interest or energy wanes. The fact is, it takes deliberate effort to pay attention, but if we loosen our mental grip on the conversion and let our mind wander, we’re no longer communicating…we’re merely exchanging monologues.
A = Ask good questions.
There are two components here:
1. The skill of asking open-ended questions.
Take a cue from journalists. If you ask a closed-ended question, you will most likely get a simple one-word answer. If someone shares a personal experience and you reply with, “Were you scared?” you’ve narrowed their response to “yes” or “no.” But if instead, you ask, “How did you feel?” you’ve invited a much richer and more informative reply.
2. The character trait of genuine curiosity.
One of the reasons why we’re so polarized as a nation is we are losing the capacity to be curious. I believe genuine curiosity is a profoundly overlooked character trait, and its decline is fueling the division we are experiencing as a society.
The best communicators I’ve ever encountered harness the power of a simple 4-word phrase: “Tell me about that.”
Technically, it’s not a question, it’s a command, but it’s a clear and powerful expression of genuine curiosity; an invitation to the other person to share.
I like this famous quote from Bill Nye the Science Guy: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
What if you approached every interaction open to this possibility—that every conversation can teach you something new? How would that impact the quality of your connections?
Years ago, during a West Coast business trip, my impromptu airport conversation with a fellow passenger illustrated the art of asking good questions.
Exchanging answers to the ubiquitous icebreakers like, “Where are you from?” is when I learned that my seatmate had never heard of Traverse City. I mentioned my hometown’s distinction as one of the Midwest’s top tourist destinations. He replied with a provocative query that stopped me in my tracks: “So if I only had three days to spend in Traverse City, what should I see?”
Instead of the hackneyed questions like, “Are the winters cold?” or “How far from Detroit are you?” we northern Michiganders are typically asked, his wonderfully wide-open inquiry caused me to pause as I scanned my right brain for the best sights and scenes of the beautiful area I call home. Try out this question the next time you meet someone when you’re traveling!
R = Resist the Urge to Interject your own stories and ideas.
One of the most difficult temptations we all encounter when we’re on the listening end of a good conversation happens when the other person says something that triggers an experience, insight, or idea that shuts off our listening.
NPR talk show host Celeste Headley has a great term for this obnoxious intrusion: “conversational narcissism.” And I’m a frequent offender.
I recall introducing myself to a couple taking delivery of a new SUV in our showroom last spring. When they shared that their youngest son was attending Hope College this fall, I cut them off in mid-sentence with, “Both of my daughters graduated from Hope College–they had a great experience!”
While my intentions were pure in finding common ground and reinforcing their son’s college choice, it was, in truth self-centered conduct unbecoming of a student of effective communication.
The motivations and effects of this behavior are also backed by research. A study by Harvard University using brain scans revealed that talking about yourself stimulates the same pleasure centers in your brain as sex, heroin, and cocaine! So you may leave a conversation feeling great about yourself (because you did most of the talking) while the other person feels the opposite.
If you sense that you, too may be prone to conversational narcissism, here’s a powerful prescription: Develop the habit of pausing for one full second (count “one thousand one”) after the other person has finished talking. It’s hard! But it will make you a more attentive and self-aware listener.
In his iconic self-development book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey captured it well when he wrote, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand…we listen with the intent to reply.”
Which one of these habits challenges you the most?
What would it mean to the quality of your communication and your overall relational capital to embrace them?
Listen in as Christal Frost and I discuss Dysfunctional Communication on her podcast: