Between Listening and Speaking is Understanding

The Story

A few years ago, I piloted a public speaking and storytelling event with a culturally-diverse audience.  I screened and coached my strongest American speakers to share a personal anecdote about navigating adversity, including their “lessons learned.”  Each speaker spoke for 5-10 minutes, was energetic and engaging and spoke with clear diction at a comfortable, conversational speaking rate.

As I observed the audience from the sidelines, I was surprised by the furrowed brows and strained expressions.  The speakers’ stories were humanistic, relaxed and authentic. I felt certain, they would be enjoyed and easy to understand. But, that was not the case at all! The reaction of the majority of the audience who spoke English as a second language, was one of confusion and uncertainty.

This realization caused me to adjust my training – on the spot.

I had planned for the audience to transition into small discussion groups following the stories, to share their perspectives on what they had just heard.  However, the unforeseen “disconnects” in comprehension, indicated communication gaps that had to be immediately addressed. Before an individual could share his or her perspective, he/she needed to form an opinion, and in order to form an opinion, the listener needed to fully understand the stories the speakers shared.

Repetition and explanation were required, even for the most fluent English Second Language speakers. I created smaller groups and invited the speakers to act as facilitators — to recap, retell and explain nuances of phrases and vocabulary that blocked full comprehension.  In the intimacy of a small group with a native-American facilitator, the multilingual listeners “got it,” both the narrative content and the focus on expressing their point of view.

The Learning

It only takes one vowel or consonant, or a single unfamiliar word or phrase to confuse a listener.  This is true of any language and is especially true when the language being heard is the listener’s second or third language.  For example, if file is heard as fire, the response to “Where is the file?”  will be significantly (and even behaviorally different). Likewise, if a listener doesn’t understand the phrase, a sack of potatoes or perceives the phrase as one long word (sakapataytoes – What does sakapataytoes mean?), he will have no clear “picture” to attach to the spoken sentence:  He put the baby over his shoulder as if it were a sack of potatoes.  As a result, communication will be compromised.

Listening comprehension is a prerequisite for engaged discussion.  It is obviously difficult to share one’s opinion, when unsure of the meaning of what was spoken.  This happens all the time in business meetings where there are professionals from different backgrounds:  cultural, business and social. Listening to cross-fire communication at a business meeting is a lot more difficult than listening to a book on tape, podcast, or listening exercise on a comprehension test.

The Bottom Line

Communication is the connection between the speaker’s words and what the listener hears and understands.  When the listener comprehends the speaker’s words as the speaker intended them, then there’s message understanding.  This is what communication is – an alignment of speaker and listener.  Interesting stories, well told, do not independently create communication.  Understood stories — now that’s the essence of communication and connection!

As a communication consultant, I have customized workshops and coaching programs to help people speak up at meetings, network within their organization and to deliver presentations that make a difference.  Human Resource professionals often ask:

  • Is the person holding back because of a lack of confidence as a speaker?
  • Is the lack of confidence related to shyness and personality?
  • Are the gaps in understanding due to a second language?

Communication coaches make these determinations and answer these questions. They help management determine an individual’s needs and address solutions to close those gaps and increase communication confidence and performance. These efforts support both the native English speaker and the global, multilingual-multicultural professional, both personally and professionally.  Moreover, they add value to business relationships and overall productivity.

If you have high performers who hold back at meetings, fear giving a presentation or are awkward communicating up, down or in between, contact me, Eileen N. Sinett, for a complimentary consultation.  And please learn about coaching programs, training options and expertise by exploring my website.