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Mindset Trumps Skill Set

May 13, 2016 by Joseph DiCenso

I consider myself a fairly skillful communicator.  I’ve studied, practiced, taught and developed/refined several models for listening, providing feedback, and dealing with conflict.  However, thanks to years of patient feedback from my spouse, and others, I’ve come to believe that mindset trumps skill set—every time.

I can approach a situation such as a request for behavior change (pressing the air out of Ziplock bags before putting their contents in the fridge) with impeccable communication skills and it will not go well if my basic assumption is that I have been wronged, slighted or for some other reason the other person’s “bad.”  If I come from that aggrieved mindset or stance (Why does she DO that?!), no matter how smooth my delivery is, she will pick up on my unspoken—yet loudly transmitted—viewpoint that she’s the bad guy.  This, of course, will put her on the defensive.

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

--William O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance Companies

If an aggrieved stance puts the other on edge, the presumption that we’re allies puts the other at ease.  Approaching an interaction from an allied stance says we’re in this together; we’re on the same side—even if we have differences to navigate.  (I love and appreciate this woman and I want us to talk about how we put stuff in the refrigerator.)

While the ideal in my mind is this allied stance coupled with skillful communication, I’ve come to believe that even bumbling communication with an attitude of alliance is more effective than expert communication skills with an attitude of grievance.  I’d rather have a pretty good map of “friendly” terrain than a precise map of hostile territory.

Another way to think about this is with a communication ground rule I like: “Describe behaviors; don’t ascribe intent—be curious about it.”  During a recent team alignment program a breakthrough came on Day 3 when it became clear that a couple of team members were inferring greed or selfishness in the behaviors of some of their teammates.  It was an Ah-ha moment for them to notice they’d been holding that stance; and when they dropped the assumption, things immediately softened, making room for deeper, more honest dialog.

We know we communicate verbally and non-verbally.  When our voice tone or body language is inconsistent with our spoken words our credibility dips; and, all things being equal, most folks most of the time will put more stock in the non-verbal.  And what drives our non-verbal communication?  Our mindset or attitude.  If I see you as an enemy it will be hard for me to hide that, however conciliatory my speech.  If I think of you as an ally, my facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures will convey that automatically, smoothing over any verbal stumbles.

So, where I believe I now have the most leverage is not in how impeccably I use my models when I communicate, but in my ability to notice my “interior condition.”  To check whether I’m entering an exchange with an attitude of alliance or one of grievance.  When I can adjust my attitude before I even speak, it matters less what I say or how well I say it.  My breathing, eyes, voice, gestures all convey that I see myself on friendly terrain, navigating with an ally.  And that makes all the difference.