June is Effective Communications month. What does that mean? The University of Maine says, “We send from 100 to 300 messages a day. These include the message we intend to send; the message we actually send; the message as the hearer interprets it; the response of the hearer based on what he or she heard; and our reaction to the exchange of words, meaning and interpretation.”
So many problems can be easily solved with effective communication, but often communication breaks down and things go downhill. My friend Lori and her husband Mike recently experienced communication gone awry.
Mike and Lori listed a bicycle for sale on Craig’s List. It was a nice little road bike, but was a beginner’s model, so they listed it with a pretty low price. Too low, it seemed; they immediately received four calls from people interested in taking a look. Mike met with the first gentleman who called. The man admitted that he didn’t know much about the type of bicycle they were selling, but he hopped on and took a quick ride.
The man told Mike that he wanted to climb hills on the bike, so he was sure he needed a bike with a lot of gears (Mike had listed the bike as a 3×9 – three gears on the front; nine on the rear). The man counted the gears on the rear derailleur, and confirmed that there were nine. He paid for the bike, threw it in the back of his car and left.
A half hour later the man called back, furious. He had re-counted the gears and there were only eight. He said, “There are only eight gears on this bike. You’ve cheated me. I want to return the bike or get a discount.” Mike immediately became defensive. He told the man that it was a Craig’s List sale and, as such, was final. The buyer threatened to sue Mike. After a bit of yelling back and forth, they hung up on each other.
Then Mike got online and looked up the specs on the bike he’d sold. Though he was sure he’d seen the number “9” on the rear derailleur, the specs showed that the bike only had eight gears. Uh oh. It was an honest mistake, but he had advertised the bike as having nine gears when it only had eight. Still, he was upset that the man had accused him of fraud and was threatening a lawsuit. He told Lori that it was just too bad, he wasn’t going to deal with the jerk anymore.
Lori, who hadn’t been verbally threatened by the buyer, stopped to consider what he must be feeling. He didn’t know much about bikes, so he didn’t realize that the difference between 27 and 24 gears wasn’t much. And, he didn’t know that they had priced the bike too low to begin with, so the fact that it had less gears didn’t mean the bike was worth less than he’d paid. All the buyer knew was that the bike had been advertised as one thing but was really another.
Lori called the buyer back. She began with, “I’m so sorry that we made this mistake. I can tell you that it was an honest mistake, but I realize that you are upset and that the bike is not what you want.” The buyer’s tone changed completely. He said, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t intentionally do this.” Lori told the man that she would meet him to refund his money if he wanted to return the bike. He graciously agreed.
In the meantime, Mike and Lori called one of the other potential buyers back. They explained the mistake in the ad but the second buyer didn’t care about three less gears. He immediately agreed to buy the bike, which he did once Lori got it back from the first buyer.
Everything turned out fine, but it could have become a much bigger issue. The first buyer was rightfully upset that the bike had been advertised with nine gears but only had eight. He could have sued Mike and Lori, which would have been an emotional strain, not to mention very expensive. And Mike and Lori likely would have lost the lawsuit since they did make a mistake. Effective communication could have nipped the problem in the bud immediately.
The University of Maine offers the following tips:
- Acknowledge the thoughts, ideas or feelings of the other person. Use nods, “uh-huhs,” and comments that indicate you recognize the validity of the speaker’s feelings.
- Say it in different words. Paraphrase (repeat what the speaker is saying in your own words), without adding anything not there in the first place.
- Ask open-ended questions. Test your interpretation of what the speaker is saying. Ask relevant, open-ended questions beginning with “what,” “how,” “please explain,” or “describe.”
- Use “I” statements, which let you share what you think or feel without sounding like you are blaming or attacking. These statements communicate your preferences and keep you responsible for your part in the exchange.
- Invite the other person to join you in addressing the issue, then take action and follow up.