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Four Keys to Effective Communication

A number of years ago, I was shopping at a local grocery store after work. I wanted to pick up a few items, including ingredients for a butter chicken recipe. The list included naan bread, a very common flatbread often associated with Indian, Western Asian, or Caribbean food. You can find it at pretty much any store. After searching for a while, I figured asking a store employee would just be easier. This is where things get interesting and, if you’re old enough, will remind you of a bad version of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s famous “Who’s on first?” bit.

The conversation went something like this. “Excuse me, miss. Could you please tell me where I might find naan bread?” The store clerk pauses and looks at me like I have two heads. “Non-bread? I’ve never heard of non-bread.” “No, I’m sorry, naan. N-A-A-N.” She stops another clerk walking by. “Have you ever heard of non-bread?” “Nope.” The second clerk keeps walking. Me: “No, naan bread. Spelled N-A-A-N.” Still looking puzzled, like I’m asking for bread that isn’t actually bread but is non-bread, she yells across the store, “Hey Larry, do you know if we carry non-bread?” At least twenty people turn to look at the idiot customer that wants to buy a bread that isn’t a real bread. Me: (now speaking a little louder out of frustration) “No, naan bread spelled N-A-A-N.” To be honest, I am long past even wanting the item and, in fact, am thinking about burgers or really anything else. Eventually, one of the store managers showed me mercy. Everyone at checkout is still staring at the idiot that wants to buy fake bread. Manager: “I think I know what that is.” The manager perp walks me to the frozen section of the store and shows me the item I’m looking for. If I hadn’t had been both hungry to get dinner started and so completely frustrated and embarrassed, I would have thought the entire exchange to be ridiculously funny.

The lesson, in this case, is that there are always multiple perspectives when people are interacting, and people might hear what you say without actually listening to you. There are, however, a few things that can be done to better communicate what you need or want.

1.) Use simple language. Try not to use industry jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations unless you know the other person well. The clerk had no idea what naan bread was, and I probably could have done a better job of describing the item before things escalated.

2.) Speak clearly. If you tend to speak quickly or not enunciate well, slow down.

3.) Use appropriate body language and tone. It helps to present a calm demeanor. As I eventually showed my frustration (I’m not sure I could have contained it), the clerk probably sensed it, which made her somewhat anxious. Researchers have shown that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is vocal, and only 7% is the actual spoken words. So, pay attention to not only what you say but how you say it. Like I said, I eventually got frustrated, and it was written all over my face. I’m a terrible poker player.

4.) Be polite. As the adage goes, “You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Treat others as you would want to be treated, and you are much more likely to get your point across. Conversely, if you are abrasive, they will likely stop listening to whatever it is you are trying to say.