Getting your message across and making your words stick

Jared Cooney Horvath

Dr Jared Cooney-Horvath tells Áilín Quinlan that most of the conversations we have with people really do go in one ear and out the other. His new book offers some tips on how to get your words to stick

Problem: Predictor Mode

Most people don’t listen properly to what somebody else is saying, says Cooney-Horvath.

“Everyone lives in a different world — and we quite literally experience very different things,” he explains.

As a result, people tend to shape what they hear into a form that makes sense to them.

“This is automatic. It’s the way the brain works,” he says, adding that as a result, 99% of what people hear is not what’s being said — it’s what they think they should be hearing.

In other words, he says, we exist in Predictor Mode, which means that we automatically start to predict what people are telling us or how things should work.

“This means people essentially hear what they want to hear.”

Solution: There are two ways to combat Predictor Mode, says Cooney Horvath.

First, be aware of peoples’ tendency to go into Predictor Mode and try to circumvent it: “If you know you’re entering a communication that is important, and you’re aware of Predictor Mode, you’ll know your listener is likely to skew your words into a predictable shape to them — so be very cognisant of this,” says Cooney Horvath.

A good way to circumvent this is to ask them to repeat back to you what they’ve heard — but do it in a way that doesn’t get their backs up, he advises.

You have to find a way to do it, usually by turning the onus on yourself.

He suggests explaining that that you’d like to ensure you expressed yourself correctly and asking the person to “say what I just said,” he suggests.

“Alternatively, say ‘Can I hear from you how you’re understanding this, as I want to make sure I said it correctly.” In a group situation, like a meeting, he suggests asking everyone to quickly write down what they just heard and compare it with somebody next to them — or have a quick debate about what has been said.

The second way to turn off someone’s Predictor Mode, says Horvath Cooney, is to ‘break’ it by saying something unexpected, which will get your listener off-guard and encourage him or her to pay attention to what you are saying:

“It’s about knowing what another person is probably thinking and breaking that predictor so that they literally ‘jerk awake’ and listen to you!”

Problem: Logic Versus Emotion

“A lot of the time when we’re trying to communicate with someone we are overly focusing on presenting it in a logical way,” explains Cooney Horvath.

However, he says, this fails to take into account that what drives most communication is emotion and not logic.

“Our listener is listening emotionally and if you’re hyper-focused on logic, you may come across as awkward or uncertain simply because you’re so focused on the words.” People can feel that nervousness, he warns — and they will either try to argue with you or become “meek” in order to make you feel better.

What’s happening is that instead of listening to your logic, they’re merely registering what they perceive as awkwardness or nervousness — and they focus on that instead of what you’re saying.

Jared Cooney Horvath.

Solution: Find the story behind the facts, he advises.

“Find the narrative embedded in the story.” In other words, he explains, if you’re trying to tell your teenager not to do something, illustrate your warning with a story, for example; that the last guy who did that had an accident.

“Think about why your message is important, and what the story is behind the logic. Shift into the emotion; shift into simulating a story.

“That’s how we can communicate most effectively and that typically only happens when someone is telling a story. Hence we say find the story behind the facts!”

Problem: Nobody Listens Properly while Focusing on Something Else

“People cannot listen to you while paying attention to their phone, for example. It’s a neurological impossibility to multi-task in this way,” says Horvath Cooney.

Therefore, if someone is looking at Facebook or snapchat while talking to you, they’re not listening to you.

Solution - Find a way to call attention to the need to listen: “In businesses and classrooms people can say put away your phone,” he explains, acknowledging, however, that this can be difficult to do in one-to-one communication. He suggests: “You could say ‘it would be very helpful to me if you could put down your phone.’ “If a person feels you are berating them they won’t cooperate but if they feel they may be helping you, they’re more likely to put away the device.”

Problem: Saying Something Once is Not Enough

People’s memories are short, says Cooney Horvath. Expect to be disappointed, he warns, if you assume that, people will change their behaviour in future based on information or instructions communicated today:

“Saying something once is not enough because the average person’s memory for absorption is actually quite weak.

“In fact 80% of what you learn on Monday will be forgotten by Wednesday. This is how our brains stop from exploding,” he explains: “This is why our brain starts short-cutting to Predictor Mode.”

Solution: Repeat your message If you want people to remember something you’ve said, you must review or repeat it twice, once within 48-72 hours, and again within the next 48-72 hours.

“You can review it quickly by repeating it a couple of times every second or third day,” he explains:

“Let’s say we had a meeting on Monday and all these ideas are put across. If you let it go your audience will forget it.” To hammer your message home, he advises, hold a five to 10 minute review session on Wednesday and again on Friday:

“This is why at the start of class, many teachers often quickly revise and recall what we did in the last few days.

In terms of the family, he says, if you have a discussion on Monday about something, rehash it quickly on Wednesday and again on Friday.

At that point, things should stick, he says, adding:

Last But Not Least:

“The big rule is, if you want to communicate to someone, be there and feel it!”

Five tips for talking to teenagers

Communicating with and influencing teenagers can be a nightmare, says Cooney Horvath who offers five tips gleaned from his research.

1. Clear Rules, Clear Consequences: Much strife between teens and parents’ centres around rules and punishment. When your child is present and in a good mood, sit down together and as a team write up joint rules and consequences. Although at the time of punishment they’ll be angry, this will help them stop blaming you for consequences once they’ve settled down.

2. Never Argue Back: “The question isn’t why teenagers argue with us so much (that’s their job) – the question is why do we ever argue back?” “When adults debate, we try to intellectually one-up each other. When teenagers debate, they try to emotionally dominate each other. It’s a different game with different rules – and it’s a game no logic will ever defeat.

3. Choice and Agency “Teenagers are trying to determine their identity. This means they must push against boundaries and feel a sense of agency. “For this reason, choices (even small ones – like what restaurant to visit or what film to watch) go a long way toward fulfilling this desire and can help bring teens out of their occasionally comatose shell.”

4. Keep Home and School Separate: “School is hard. Teens need to know they can switch off and have a safe spot at home.

“Although it’s reasonable to occasionally discuss schoolwork, don’t let that dominate conversations.

“Allow your teen to decompress and discuss other, non-academic issues as they feel.”

5. Embrace Their Story: “Your teen does not live in the same world as you do. I mean this quite literally – they see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the world differently than you.

“It’s important to take the time to try to understand the world through their eyes. Once we know their story, we have a much better chance of helping expand and evolve it.”

Stop Talking, Start Influencing - 12 Insights from Brain Science to Make Your Message Stick by Dr Jared Cooney Horvath. Exisle Publishing, March 2019

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