If you want to be effective at interpersonal communication in areas like managing conflict, negotiating, managing performance and coaching, here are three fundamentals – a theory and a two related skills – you really ought to know and be good at. The theory is attribution theory. And the skills are active listening and delivering feedback.
The theory is called attribution theory. It is about how we explain why other people do what they do. According to the theory, there either are external causes – e.g. the dog ate the homework – or internal causes, something about the individual or the group to which the individual belongs – e.g. he doesn’t get his work done because he’s lazy.
The truth is we often don’t know why someone does something. You should be aware of this theory because the best way to blow up a negotiation or a coaching session or almost any interaction with someone is to impute a negative motivation to something that person has done. Being wrong about it only makes the situation worse.
Now that you know what attribution theory is, you know exactly what not to do when delivering feedback or when you are engaged in active listening: do not make attributions. Do not tell someone what he or she is thinking, feeling, or intending. Instead, pay attention to what the individual is saying and doing.
Feedback The purpose of feedback is to give the feedback recipient information about his or her behavior that he or she can use to decide whether to continue that behavior or to change it in some way. When delivering feedback, instead of beginning with the impact of someone’s behavior and assuming the individual knows exactly what you’re talking about, begin by describing what that person did using specific behavioral language and then identify the impact of the behavior.
The point about language is important because the same behavior can impact different people in different ways. For example, behavior that some would call aggressive might look confident or arrogant to other people. That’s why it’s important to be specific about what the individual is doing. Please note that the words aggressive, confident and arrogant do not describe specific behavior. They describe someone’s interpretation of someone else’s behavior. They are attributions.
Active Listening Most people think of active listening as going “uh huh” every now and then and paraphrasing. These are techniques intended to encourage the other person and to let them know you’re listening. The techniques work best if they support the actual goal of active listening, which is listening to understand.
Here’s how to become an active listener: Do not assume that your interpretations are their intentions. Do not use attributions. Paraphrase when the other person says something that appears important and then, if it seems appropriate, add on a response or a clarifying question. For example, “As I understand it now, your perspective on this topic is… Mine is different. I view the situation this way…” That gives the other person the opportunity to clarify your understanding of their position and to hear your view. As with feedback, active listening is useful in most interactions with other people whether those interactions are personal or business related. And both skills are essential for things like negotiating, managing conflict, coaching and managing performance. They are not the only skills you’ll need, but without them, you will be much less effective. That’s why they are among the fundamentals of interpersonal communication.