Oliver Black

Person To Person: Speak to Listen (Part 3)

Oliver Black

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My Family Care asks Oliver: We all engage in a multitude of different relationships every day, but do we communicate effectively? Learning to speak so the other person listens is a skill that is more than worth its weight in gold. How can people communicate more effectively, with their children, partners, colleagues, bosses?


Let me clear - communication isn't my strong point, apparently nor is comedy...

A real assortment

The problem is that I think I am good at it, which is probably my first mistake. What I am quickly learning is that I am pretty consistent in how I communicate and that's not the most effective way to do it. By way of background: I grew up in Yorkshire with 3 brothers and no sisters. My mother was very forthright in her opinions and there weren't too many punches pulled. In other words we are quite direct. My wife on the other hand, grew up with 2 younger twin sisters and a very female dominated household.

I am married with 3 children, 2 daughters and son (although the younger 2 are twins). Which to some extent is the perfect experiment on just how different we are. Mars and Venus are alive and well in our household.

Knowing your colour

At work we offer internal training on "True Colours" for all new staff and for existing staff to revisit. It's a sort of personality test (think Myers and Briggs) to help identify how you and your team mates might differ in their default approach, personality and styles. By doing this, the hope is that people can better identify that a) everyone works slightly differently and b) how best to adjust your style in order to communicate in the most effective way for that individual.

It's great and everyone seems to enjoy the sessions. In simple terms, if there was a "Fire in the office", the following people might react in the following ways:

  • GOLD: "Where is the fire marshal, has she/he got the clipboard with everyone's names on it, is everyone leaving via the exit and not the lift."
  • ORANGE: "Get out, run, the right result is no-one is caught and we are all out".
  • GREEN: "Why was it that smoke alarm that went off, why this day, what actually happened, why did it happen."
  • BLUE: "Is everyone OK, not too scared, don't panic. No one was injured or traumatised from the fire."

I am quite "gold", but with a good dose of "orange". In other words I like lists and order and want things to happen very quickly. Yet I know that if I am chatting to Gerry (Green) I need to make sure I go through the thinking, the clear reasoning and rationale for what we are doing - be brief and to the point. Lisa (Blue), on the other hand, prefers me to elaborate, talk more broadly, check with how she feels about a certain decision. So at work, I at least feel like I have a strategy, an approach and method to get through to people.

So far so good. Why don't I apply this at home? Well it's carnage, there are people all talking over each other, I can't get a word in edgeways and, there is no shortage of tears and shouting from any number of corners. It doesn't really conform to the work place. But it doesn't mean I should throw the work strategy out of the window.

And the family...

The Girls: They are garrulous and really do talk a lot more than Jacob. Honor is 7 and everything is a battle or a negotiation. Me, I need to remain calm and rationalise. Explain the options and that these are the ONLY options for her to choose from. Cassidy, who is 6, I just need to make 1 on 1 time, so that she isn't swamped by the other 2. She has plenty to say when given the space to do so.

Jacob: Where to start? He is almost mute by comparison, he can't remember what he did a minute ago, let alone yesterday or last week. If I ask him about his day, I possibly get 3 words. The girls, I get a full blown explanation, blow by blow. But this is where I need to change my style. I have to look for the openings, when he tells me something, that's my opportunity to explore it further and open a whole world of thoughts and ideas around it. It's an invitation to talk.

Alex: Well let's just say this is work in progress. I think we communicate in some fundamentally different ways, she quite possibly looks at me like I'm an alien on occasion. She is a lot more blue, I need to empathise and sympathise (things I am not naturally good at). There are conversations where she genuinely wants me to offer advice and then there are those conversations where the pretext is "shut up and listen". I'm just not good at recognising the difference or adapting my style accordingly, but it's work in progress.

Customise your style

If I can offer any advice on how to speak so someone listens, it's to get to know the person, understand what makes them tick and, personalise your message and delivery.

Oliver Black, Business Owner, Father of Three

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Regular work+family updates for
HR and diversity professionals.