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By James McPartland

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

- Sir Winston Churchill

You can tell a lot about a person by the choice of words they use. Their words paint a picture. Even if all the person is talking about is how their weekend went, you can start to get a feel for how they look at the world, what they’ve been through, and how their attitude shapes their perceptions.

Communication is a Contact Sport | Article by James McPartland

If you listen hard enough, you can actually get a sense of not only their past, but their future.

That’s because, when you break it down, communication tells the story of who we are. Whether we like it or not, we drop hints to others about how we see ourselves and our future trajectory in the simple bits of dialogue and words we use every day.

When we are fully engaged with one another, with focused and intentional speaking and listening, we have a remarkable experience of understanding. When you genuinely connect with someone, it is visceral. It is like a game or a sport.

The goal of this game is gaining a mutual understanding with the person we are communicating with. That’s the big win. What we are playing against are the things that get in the way of that understanding. And to play to win, we have to know where the ball is at all times – play by play, conversation by conversation.

In this case, the “ball” is who we are listening to and what they are saying. Inevitably, we have to look inward and see how we are communicating with ourselves first before we can move the ball forward with a teammate.

businessman drawing plays on sports board
two businessmen having a conversation
two businessmen kicking a ball playing a sport together


One of the things I tell my clients is that “all communication is with myself – and sometimes it involves other people.” I say this because I know that the internal conversations going in my mind, like everyone else, vastly outnumber the ones I have with other people.

Have you ever truly listened to yourself?

A friend of mine, when talking about plans for her future, would speak wistfully about someday living near the beach, learning how to become a gourmet cook, and traveling the world with a significant other. But invariably, she would always finish those stories with, "…but that will never happen." You could see her face change from fairy tale hopefulness to sarcastic pessimism. She couldn't dare dream that big, because she feared the inevitable disappointment.

It reminds me of that running gag in the old Peanuts comic strips, where Lucy would hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick, and at the last minute take it away, forcing Charlie Brown to tumble through the air after trying to kick a ball that was no longer there. When we are not aware of the messages we are telling ourselves, we are both Lucy and Charlie Brown, undermining our future with negative self-talk.

We get what we look and listen for, whether for success or failure. If we are intentional about how we listen to ourselves and aware of the power of our self-talk, we can set ourselves up for success. But it all starts with being aware of that inner dialogue.

The visual metaphor I like to use for listening is that of a safe-cracker, kneeling by a safe with a stethoscope and slowly turning the knob to listen for the clicks to find the right combination. Listen to yourself with that level of precision.

What are you saying? What words are you using? What limits might you be setting? How are you setting yourself up for success?

Do you know what happened to my "that's never going to happen" friend? She changed her self-talk. Now… she lives by the beach, she's learning how to become a gourmet cook, and she just got back from Europe with her significant other. She changed "never going to happen" into "when can we start?" She’s a perfect example that by changing your inner dialogue, you shift your mindset, and your whole reality begins to transform.

Having a heightened level of awareness and intention around how we speak to ourselves prepares us for the most exciting part of communication: making a connection with another person. This is the “contact” part of the sport!

CEO thinking
two executive leaders shaking hands over table football
football players jumping up together


In the game of life, conversations are where most communication happens with other people. The importance of this dialogue cannot be understated. Communication is not ABOUT the relationship, it IS the relationship. It is the words we use, the conversations we have, or miss, or avoid. If we have a communication problem, we have a relationship problem.

Play by play, we want to be as present as we can with the other person or we are going to nose-dive to the ground in misunderstanding. We must direct our “safe cracking” listening to others with as much precision as when we listen to ourselves. We must track their message, intention, body language, choice of words they use and don’t use, non-verbal cues, and emotion. Every conversation deserves our authentic presence and focus, from idle chit-chat to difficult conversations that require courage, and everything in between.

We all got “here” one conversation at a time. Our relationships are a cumulative result of every conversation with everyone we’ve ever had. That’s true about our business relationships, too. Relationships, careers, and companies can succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly – one conversation at a time.

The most valuable currency you have is not money, fame, or intelligence. It’s relationships. And we have a chance to build this currency with every conversation that we have.


To spend this relationship currency to our advantage, we must set up the playing field – the environment where the communication takes place – for success. Setting up the parameters gives us a "home game" advantage to achieving understanding. We'll be setting the tone, as opposed to just merely reacting.

Any conversation we have will be influenced by the conditions of the environment. It's important to set up the place, time and conditions to be as conducive as possible to effective and meaningful connection.

But this being a full-contact sport, it has formidable obstacles that can derail the game. One of the biggest drivers of the communication environment is also the least predictable: emotion.

Making Room for Emotion

We often make decisions based on emotional reasons first, rational reasons second. It doesn’t always make sense, but it is true. Economist Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize for his research on how people make bad or irrational financial decisions. As quoted by writer Chris Isidore in the CNN Money article American Richard H. Thaler wins Nobel Prize in Economics, Thaler famously pointed out that “in order to do good economics, you have to keep in mind that people are human.”

We see how emotions can drive entire markets in the news – often in real-time – when a politician or CEO of a company makes a controversial statement, and suddenly the market looks “jittery” and the public stock takes a nosedive. Of course, the market is incapable of feeling any emotion of panic – rather, the market is just a reflection of the people who trade within it. Does this sudden drop in stock price accurately reflect the prospects of the company? Did the entire team and long term prognosis of the company change in a matter of minutes? Or did the stock take a hit because of the perceived fear that the company was going to tank?

Similarly, strong emotion can "tackle" a conversation and send it spinning or crumpled to the floor. In the workplace, this is why a healthy company culture, relationships built on trust, and a psychologically safe working environment are absolutely necessary to help mitigate strong emotions from taking over and driving conversations to irrational results.

However, this is not something we can completely control. No matter how much we’ve set up the conditions of the environment for success, we cannot predict when a teammate has a breakup, is recovering from a cold, was just yelled at this morning or had a fender bender. The best we can do is try to keep our own emotions in check, and not react in kind if the other person loses emotional restraint.

two businesswomen arguing and getting upset in conversation

Thankfully, the other biggest obstacle is much more within our realm of control – the ongoing distractions that hit us from all sides.

Mitigating Distraction

Distraction is a serious problem for everyone, causing huge productivity losses. Statistically, it’s everywhere. In Inc. Magazine’s article Distractions Are Costing Companies Millions. Here’s Why 66% of Workers Won’t Talk About It, writer Wanda Thibodeaux cites online learning company Udemy, whose survey found that “70% feel distracted when they're on the job, with 16% asserting that they're almost always distracted. The problem is biggest for Millennials and Gen Zers, with 74 percent reporting feeling distracted.”

And it’s not what you think it might be. Certainly, there are people addicted to social media and their personal devices, but those distractions actually rate low on the list. According to the same study, most of the distraction comes from the office environment itself. 80% blame co-workers and office noise as the “top” distractions. Around 60% see meetings as an “interruption.”

And then there are the distractions of our own thoughts, which according to a Stanford University Study, are estimated to be around 60,000 thoughts a day.

Our focused conversations must survive through the gauntlet of these myriad distractions. To forward the football metaphor – distractions are the defensive line that must be smashed through daily.

Unlike emotion, we do have a much greater degree of control over this variable. We can choose when we look at our devices, how we schedule time to answer emails or the phone, and how we prepare for a conversation to happen. With training and practice, we can quiet our mind so we don’t get distractions “from the home team” of our own thoughts. We can pick our words carefully. We can also direct time and place, and most of all, intention.

business leader in front of his computer distracted
football players running in game
two coworkers having a happy conversation


“The experience of being understood, versus interpreted, is so compelling, you can charge admission.”

– B. Joseph Pine II, The Experience Economy

As I’ve said before, the “big win” is understanding another person and being understood in return. It is even more important than being agreed with. Being understood on a profound level is one of the biggest gifts you can ever receive. It is no small feat. It is the “touchdown” of this contact sport.

As always, we must extend to others what we want to receive. So, we must seek to understand before seeking to be understood. If the relationship is strong, this can happen even amid disagreement. If you have a great track record with your teammate, then it is much easier to whether any conflict.

Have you ever had a powerful customer service experience where you entered the conversation hopping mad about something that had gone wrong, and left the conversation with gratitude and feeling of contentment? This is an example where the feeling of being understood overpowers the "wrong" that has taken place. The customer gives up attachment to being angry in order to make room for the company trying to make amends. In turn, the company gives up its pride to admit it has done something wrong, intending to make it right again.

This is why it's so important to always start by listening to how you are speaking to yourself. If you are unkind and impatient with yourself, this is how you will show up when having conversations with others.

What you give yourself is how you can also be generous with others. With intentionality, you can give this gift of understanding to everyone you have a conversation with every day. 

How will you choose to show up?

How can you be generous?

How can you offer someone the treasure of understanding?

When you give this precious gift freely, the whole world opens up to you.



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