During my recent visit to New York, a couple of good friends gave me some advice on things I should work on to improve how I relate to other people, and particularly how I communicate. The 5 main points (I think), were that I should:
- Stop and think before saying things, particularly with regard to how direct I am. I tend to be quite direct and straightforward in what I say, and I think that this is mostly a good thing, but sometimes I can be perceived as overly confrontational, which can be unhelpful as it makes some other people (perhaps especially those I do not know so well) defensive and so hinders communication. So I guess I need to think more about politeness, while still trying to be clear. This has been pointed out to me before in a work context too, so I think it is definitely something I need to work on.
- Think how others will react to and feel about what I say and do. This is related to the first point, but a bit broader. This seems fairly obvious and something I already knew, but it is good to have a reminder. Part of the difficulty here is how to build an accurate mental model of how other people think, which I do not think I am very good at.
- Acknowledge good things (and do so first). In written discussion in particular, I often tend to ignore the parts of a comment or argument that I agree with (hey, I agree with them, so I do not have anything to say about them) or otherwise have no opinion about, and just jump straight to the bits I disagree with or want to dig further on. This is how I expect people to respond to me, and it seems inefficient to discuss some point about which I do not have anything more to contribute to the conversation, but as was recently pointed out to me on this very blog (thanks Daniel!) this puts some people off further conversation. My intent in arguing is the opposite, so this is problematic. I think the issue may be that some people assume that silence means disagreement, whereas I assume it means agreement? Anyway, apparently the solution is to start be acknowledging the parts I agree with, and I guess to thank people where appropriate. This comes back to the first point a bit again, sacrificing efficiency for politeness. This seems like a fairly straightforward solution, but getting into the habit of actually remembering to apply it is likely to take a while. If you notice me not doing this, please remind me!
- Accept compliments before arguing. Apparently I am bad at accepting compliments and tend to argue with them. I had not particularly noticed this myself, so will have to try to pay more attention in future. If you notice this please point it out to me.
- Read a book about reading people. I am not quite sure what was in mind here, and am not entirely convinced that this sort of thing can be taught well by a book. But if you have any recommendations let me know.
Do any of you who know me have any other advice to add to this list? Or have you had any useful feedback about yourself? How have you applied it? How possible is it to change how you communicate and relate to other people?
I thought a bit myself as well, and a couple of observations of myself were:
- I used to be much better at concentrating, less distractable. Unfortunately as I have got older my ability to concentrate on a single complex task, particularly to just sit think about something, think through how to solve a problem in my head, seems to have decreased. This is unfortunate.
- On the topic of relating to other people, I tend to assume (at least subconsciously) that people are / work like me; the problem is that they are not. As I am learning, many of them work and think in completely different ways. Relationships may be much less symmetric than I tend to assume; the other person does not necessarily feel the same way about me as I do about them, nor even about the relationship itself. This makes it difficult to model how they will react (as required for point 2 above), and generally to understand them and the motivations behind their actions.