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3 Steps Towards More Meaningful Conversations

3 Steps Towards More Meaningful Conversations

Women are from Venus and men are to the point. Or how does the saying go? You know the situation – women want to be heard and men want to solve a problem.

I don’t have the magic trick to make men and women communicate effortlessly but I can share one little trick to communication that certainly will help you better understand how to communicate with anybody. I have found that this deeper understanding of communication has been very helpful in all conversations in life.

Information is power?

We live in an age where information is abundant and still the right information at the right time can be the most valuable asset. The number of technologies and channels for information sharing has exploded over the past 20 years and still we pay little attention to verifying the meaning the information.

Talking about information is actually a bit tricky so let’s start by trying to understand the concept of information. The scientific definition of the word is very different from the common, everyday use of the word. In science (information theory), information is a measure of the uncertainty of an outcome — in other words, a measure of the number of possible underlying combinations of data that a message could represent, totally excluding the meaning of what is transmitted.

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On the other hand, in everyday use of the word, information is an expression for manipulating and organizing data in a way that adds knowledge to the receiver. In this meaning it is important to understand that a core characteristic of communication is that it is transmission of information in the reduced state of data.

A popular example of this is the famous exchange between Victor Hugo and his publisher after the publication of “Les Miserables” in 1861. After completing “Les Miserables,” Hugo left Paris for vacation. Being curious about the reception of his book, he sent a letter to his publisher only writing “?”. The publisher answered with “!” — and indeed “Les Miserables” was a success. Despite the very limited information exchanged, they both understood each other perfectly.

What is information?

The common understanding of information is that it is an expression for manipulation and organization of data in a way that adds value to the receiver. It is common to talk about Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom (DIKW). In the DIKW chain, data is the basic level, symbols, uninterpreted, and “as is”. When manipulated, organized, and put into context, data becomes information. When you know how to use the information, you have knowledge, and finally when you know when to use what knowledge, you have wisdom.

In this explanation, data does not have meaning and information is subjective. Both the sender and the receiver of data decide how to manipulate, how to organize, and in which context to put the data. Information can be transferred in various forms (newspaper, internet, email, picture, etc). Knowledge only exists in the heads of people; It is highly personal and is harder to transfer since it is concerned with how to use information and the possibilities are endless. A document used for knowledge transfer may cover the most plausible ways of how to use the information, but hardly all of them. When talking about wisdom you add morals and ethics to guide when to use which knowledge.

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The importance of what is not said

We think we understand information, but to fully understand what information is, it is useful to introduce exformation, a term coined by Danish author of popular science Tor Nørretranders. 

    Exformation is produced when information is created. It is all the things that are not communicated. Nevertheless, often expected to be understood by the receiver. This presupposes that the sender and the receiver have a somewhat common understanding of the contextual framework within which the communication takes place.

    Before the sender sends the message there is a process of removing unnecessary information. This process is called incitation. There is an unconscious incitation in which the sender’s values, ethics, and mood are reflected — also, a conscious incitation based experience from previous conversations about the topic, previous conversations with the receiver, the current situation, and the reason for sending the message.

    Upon receiving the message, the receiver has to put the message in a context to interpret the message. This process is called excitation, and it’s the process of adding information based on individual values, experiences, motivation, the situation, and the receiver’s perception of the sender to create meaning for the receiver. Based on this interpretation of the message, the receiver will shift to being the sender of an answer and starts the incitation process to make the information transmittable. In course of a dialogue there are several circles of incitation and excitation, and plenty of exformation — in other words, plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings.

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    The theory is applicable to every day life as well. In art, poetry, fiction, and comedy, the degree of difference between the incitation process and the excitation process is the difference between success or failure. An unquantifiable but distinct difference may lead to what we call creativity, an unexpected perspective on the transmitted data that creates new insights. In a work of art, there has to be enough exformation to stimulate the receiver’s associations and create meaning, but with too much exformation; If the receiver’s contextual framework is very different from the sender’s, the receiver will not understand and may deem the work of art as rubbish.

    Going back to the example of Victor Hugo, it is very clear that he and his publisher referred to the same contextual framework, and this allowed them both to create lots of exformation; They reduced the transmitted information to single characters and still maintained perfect understanding of each others’ meaning.

    3 steps towards more meaningful conversations

    In any conversation where you want to create mutual understanding, not necessarily agreement, try to keep the following three steps in mind.

    1. Focus on the conversation so you are receptive to all the things beyond the words being transmitted.
    2. Ask questions to better understand the receiver’s excitation process. Do you have an example? Do you have experience of this? How do you feel about that? What did you learn from it?
    3. Help the receiver to understand your meaning by sharing elements of your incitation process. Is there exformation that should be put back into the conversation to facilitate understanding?

    It will not work if you focus on the three steps — remember point 1 above — but with some practice, you can focus on the conversation, create flow, and intuitively inject point 2 and 3 to facilitate the conversation and create mutual understanding.

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    I hope that my incitation process in writing this has (consciously and unconsciously) lead me to transmit this message in a way that your excitation process puts it in the context it was intended.

    Did I succeed?

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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