WHAT SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN AGREEMENTS ARE WE MAKING?
By James McPartland
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
- George Bernard Shaw
Our lives are driven by the multitude of agreements we make every day.
But what we often don’t realize is that while some of these agreements are conscious, many of them are unconscious. The conscious variety are spoken or written down. The unconscious agreements are unspoken, but often have just as powerful a hold on us — though we may not even be aware of them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we knew what all of those unspoken agreements actually are? Wouldn’t that make it easier to determine if they are beneficial agreements, and if so, that we are actually adhering to them?
Communication breakdowns concerning agreements are so common that they are to be expected. In my view, this is not due to a failure of trying to understand or to be understood. Most people desperately want to be understood even more than they wish to be agreed with.
Instead, it is our assumptions about what is being communicated that derail us the most. We assume that when we speak, people precisely understand us. And conversely, when we listen, we think we understand everything exactly. But as we know, this is very often not the case.
And so it goes, with speakers not landing their points, and listeners not receiving the intended information. From these spotty conversations, equally spotty agreements arise, and before we know it, we’ve set ourselves up for some epic misunderstandings.
To untangle all of it, we have to start with ourselves.
AGREEMENTS WE HAVE WITH OURSELVES AND THE WORLD
We all come from distinct places and are raised in different ways. As a result of our own personal histories, we are conditioned to see the world from a certain point of view. This perspective is unique to our own upbringing, and although others may have similar points of view, they are never exactly the same.
I sometimes call this “the hypnosis of youth” – the things that we learn early on that become our opinion of how the world is supposed to work and the rules of how the game of life should be played. And this is the beginning of the agreements we begin to make with ourselves.
Then before we know it, our opinions (rules of the game of life) start influencing our agreements. But what if you’re having a conversation with someone who has a different view of the world than yours? This can disrupt any sort of understanding we’re trying to forge. Interruption, judgment, disagreement, and emotions are now in the driver’s seat, and our attention is mainly focused on holding on to our own agreements we’ve already made with the world.
These agreements between ourselves and the world are so ingrained within us, most of the time we don’t even view them as agreements. They are implied, unwritten, and uncommunicated, but also fairly rigid. They can be about how we think others should behave, what it means to be a good person, or come in the form of “if/then agreements”. They can be about anything.
“If I get that car, then I’ll be cool.”
“If I get more money, then I will be happy.”
“This is the way men and women should behave.”
“A good education means going to this particular school.”
"This is how public figures should act and believe.”
“My political party is correct."
And so on. We bring these agreements (that often look like opinions) everywhere we go. Of course, so does everyone else. And just like that, disagreement over what was said or intended, or what should be, suddenly becomes a lot more likely. We assign our own labels and meanings to things based on our own perspectives and where we are coming from.
Because of this, we often come into conversations front-loaded with a bias about how things should work, before the other person has even had a chance to open their mouth.
ARE WE LISTENING TO OTHERS OR OURSELVES?
In the workplace, this “front-loaded” bias impacts us in everyday activities. For example, when we have team meetings and discuss assignments and action steps, we do our best to understand what was said and move forward with what we agreed to.
But what exactly was the agreement that was made?
If ten people go in to a meeting, and we ask those same ten people what they heard after the meeting is over, we’ll probably get ten different answers about what was said. This not surprising at all — It’s hard to hear someone else if you’re too busy listening to yourself.
Not everyone is bad at this — certainly, there are people that practice excellent listening despite their front-loaded bias. Research shows that good listening can influence 40% of a leader's job performance. Good listeners cultivate relationships that will positively influence their future, in both business and their personal life.
However, the real-world impact of bad listening is shocking in its frequency. In 5 Facts About Communication in the Workplace You Need to Know, entrepreneur.com writer Erik Kostelnik highlights uncomfortable statistics about the end results of meetings: “Forty-six percent of employees rarely or never leave a meeting knowing what they’re supposed to do next.”
Unfortunately, we usually don't notice the miscommunication until things go wrong later down the line, or as I like to say, when the toast falls jelly-side down.
Harvard Business Review writer Dan Pallotta describes the listener’s dilemma in How to Fix Misunderstandings in Work and in Life: “Landmark Education, a human performance and development company, describes the phenomenon as “already-always” listening. It’s counterproductive listening, in which you’re not really listening to the other person at all. Instead, you’re listening to what the voice in your head is saying about what the other person is saying. He or she gets trapped in the prison of your prejudice — trapped in your “listening” and can never show up in another way to you.”
ARE WE MAKING ASSUMPTIONS WHEN WE ARE SPEAKING?
Similarly, as speakers, we can create the same "prison of prejudice" by assuming our listeners understand us completely. You would think that when we have known people at work for a long time, our communication with them might be better. But so often, this familiarity can actually make it worse. It becomes an illusion that everyone in the meeting got the same meaning from the speaker’s message. You may think you are a communicating with a fine point pen, but for your colleague, it may feel like more of a haphazardly thrown paint bucket.
In the Forbes article Too Much Miscommunication at Work? A Simple Fix, contributor Heidi Grant Halvorson describes the familiarity issue further: “We are particularly likely to be “sure it was obvious” with people we know well or who we’ve worked with for a long time – we assume our thoughts and behaviors are transparent when they are far from it. So, ironically, the risk of miscommunication is greater with a close colleague than a brand-new coworker.
When we assume that other people know what we’re thinking, and what we are expecting of them, we do them a real disservice. Assuming that we’ve been clear about what we wanted, we blame them when things don’t go as planned.
The next time you catch yourself thinking “I didn’t expressly say that to Bob, but it should be obvious…” STOP. Nothing is ever obvious unless you made it obvious by spelling it out.”
MAINTAINING INTEGRITY WITH AGREEMENTS
In the spirit of “spelling it out” — there are a few best practices concerning listening and speaking to produce agreements that are clear and actionable to all parties involved. I practice these in my own organization and advise my clients to do the same in all their interactions.
First, make it a clear agreement:
As a speaker, ask your listeners "what did you hear" or "what are you getting out of this conversation?" If an agreement is being made, ask "who will do what by when?" Another way of asking is, “what actions will you take as a result of this meeting?” If you are sensing discomfort or tension, give your listeners permission to provide honest feedback. You could also ask: “Is there something you want to tell me that you think I don’t want to hear?” or “Are there any elephants in the room that we need to talk about?”
As receivers of the information, we can also practice active listening by repeating what was said back to the speaker: “I hear you saying this… Is that accurate?” or “What I understand is this… Am I correct?” This can turn the meeting into more of a conversation with confirmation of the things that are important.
As listeners, there are additional ways we can effectively engage with whoever is speaking. Giving physical cues that we are paying attention, like making eye contact, nodding, and not getting distracted by any of our personal devices, can help the speaker tremendously. Also, we should refrain from interrupting and first seek to understand.
If any misunderstanding arises, it’s best to get it cleared up in the moment. Ultimately, the speaker must take total responsibility for whether he or she conveyed the message accurately. But the listeners must also take ownership of confirming the message for themselves. Was there anything left unsaid? Does something still seem confusing or vague? Ask questions and find out. Have the courage to request clarification on what they are trying to communicate.
Second, keep the agreement:
The ultimate part of demonstrating to someone that you have both listened and fully understand the expectations is by your actions. Following through with the agreements you make not only cements you as a good communicator, but also, as someone with integrity who keeps their word.
Third, renegotiate agreements that you may not be able to keep:
Familiarity with colleagues may lead to unspoken assumptions that they won’t mind if you fudge a deadline or deliver only a portion of what you promised. This is an imaginary and unspoken agreement that may not be true at all. If you must break an agreement, renegotiate with all the players involved beforehand and with enough time for everyone to re-adjust. Then move forward in good faith.
Fourth, clean up broken agreements:
No one is perfect, and sometimes you are in a situation that prevents you from keeping your agreement. If this happens, take responsibility, and don’t make excuses. When agreements are broken, it can be an opportunity to recommit yourself to the team and ask the parties involved how you can make it right. Strive to uncover any underlying issues that contributed to why you broke the agreement in the first place. This will help you stay on track.
CLEAR COMMUNICATION & AGREEMENTS GENERATE MOMENTUM
Staying on track with our agreements means consistently exercising these best practices. The alternative is disastrous and expensive. Believe me, I've seen it.
Unspoken and miscommunicated agreements are like little time-bombs that can go off at any moment. And the more we DON’T practice good communication as speakers and listeners, the more we produce these little time bombs that will detonate when we least expect and cause a huge mess.
When real communication takes place, it’s a powerful experience.
The reward for an organization that practices active listening and speaking around agreements is tremendous momentum. A team that is in synch with all of its members is one that can perform at optimum strength.
When we truly understand each other, we bring out the best of their gifts and the best of our own.