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Communication allows us to be heard and understood. But have you ever felt as if, when you’re speaking, the recipient was not truly listening to you?

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Many times, as a consultant developer, I have felt this way. Sometimes, when negotiating a deadline with a client, I felt that the person simply did not understand that it was not possible to meet that deadline; or, when giving constructive feedback to a colleague, I felt like the person was listening to me just to answer me defensively. I always wondered: is the problem in the way that I communicate? 

Difficult conversations are bound to happen throughout our careers. This includes conversations in which we know that the person listening is not going to agree with us or will be uncomfortable while receiving constructive feedback. However, we can make these conversations less difficult if we know how to communicate effectively; that is, if we can be truly understood by our listeners. 

Often, we place the responsibility of being heard only on the listener​. We expect comprehension. We want the other person to directly understand our perspective, with no impediments, and to be a good listener. But are we being good speakers? Do we empathize with the other person with regards to what we say and when we say it? 

Empathy often means putting yourself in someone else's shoes​. That is, having the psychological capacity to imagine what you would feel and how you would feel if you were in that person's situation. 

Having empathy when deciding what to say 

Do we know how to differentiate constructive feedback from empty criticism? The first question that I ask myself before giving constructive feedback is, ‘Am I giving this feedback because the person behaved inappropriately​, because I want them to grow,​ or simply because ​they are different from me?’ 

We all have a tendency toward unconscious bias. These biases are truths that we program within ourselves, based on prejudices that we build throughout our lives. Our biases can be constructed based on economic income​, seniority​, religion​, ethnicity​, gender​, culture​, and several other factors. When we evaluate someone professionally, for example, we unconsciously tend to better evaluate people who are similar to ourselves. If I decide to give feedback simply because the person is different from me, then I might have been carried away by my unconscious biases. 

Even though we might not have control of our unconscious biases, we are responsible for what we do with them. We are capable of reflecting on our biases and trying to avoid them determining our actions in an automatic way. In essence, we can re-educate ourselves​. 

As a technical leader, I often find myself preparing to give feedback to a person regarding the way in which they spoke. Again and again, however, I have realized that I was just trying to make them sound more like me​, or express themselves like me – even though they were perfectly effective in what they were trying to communicate. 

Analyzing facts is the best way to remove our biases when evaluating others as it involves removing subjectivities, which helps us avoid assumptions. If, during an assessment, you find yourself saying things like, 'I think that (...)' or, 'It seems like (...)', it is quite possible that you are being partial instead of analyzing what happened. 

Having empathy when deciding when to say it 

In 1999, Marshall Rosenberg proposed a methodology called non-violent communication, which uses empathy to make communication more effective. Through it, we can make ourselves more understandable to our listeners and convey our points of view in a more objective and less biased way. 

This methodology is based on four steps​. The first step is observation​: we should remove our biases as much as possible and analyze the situation without judgment. This requires asking ourselves, ‘What are the facts? What happened?The second step is to analyze our feelings​: ‘​How do I feel about these facts? Frustrated? Disappointed? Annoyed?The third step is to identify our needs​: based on our feelings, we should reflect on what we need to do to feel better. And the fourth and final step is suggestion​: we should suggest to the other person that they might do something different. 

Having empathy when we listen

Giving constructive feedback is certainly not an easy task. For many people, it is emotionally draining to give constructive feedback since one never knows how the listener will react or whether the listener will come out frustrated and/or disappointed. When receiving feedback, we can help the person giving feedback by making sure that we are good listeners. 

When receiving feedback, ask the other person to give you examples of actions or observations that made them conclude the feedback was needed; do not be defensive; do apologize if you behaved wrongly; listen to suggestions; get to know yourself. Some people need more time to reflect on constructive feedback. Respect yourself if you leave a conversation frustrated. Give yourself time to process the information. If you're still not convinced, validate the suggestions you received with other people, without exposing the person who gave you feedback. Feedback is a gift that someone is giving you. Make sure you receive it as an opportunity to grow. 

An example of non-violent communication 

Maria and João are two developers. João is always late for the daily meeting, which happens at 9am. During this meeting, Maria is tasked with updating everyone about the status of João's tasks. 

Maria feels bothered by having to update everyone on tasks for which she is not directly responsible, and about which she may have only partial information. She thinks that João is irresponsible and does not value the time of the other members of the team – hers included. However, Maria decides to give João constructive feedback in a non-violent way. 

Maria calls João and says, ‘João, you are always late for the daily meeting. I don't like to talk to our clients about things that I haven't worked on. I would like you to pass on the status of your tasks, from now on. Also, could you try to arrive on time for our daily meetings?’ 

Then João replies, ‘I'm sorry for any inconvenience I may have caused, Maria. I have a kid and I need to drop him off at school before I get to work. That's why I'm often late. Could you help me by suggesting a different time for our meetings?’ 

And Maria replies, ‘Wow! I didn't know you had a child. Let's find a new time for the team to meet!’

By avoiding her unconscious bias – her prior belief that João is irresponsible because he is often late – Maria managed to be more effective in her feedback and discovered the real reason for João's tardiness. 

João, on the other hand, by being empathetic and listening to Maria's point of view, was able to explain the situation from his perspective –without responding defensively – and to also ask his colleague for help. 

Both of them were heard! Together, they came to a solution to a problem and may end up having more productive daily meetings with all team members present. 

Going beyond feedback 

Not all difficult conversations will have to involve giving feedback. Negotiating a deadline with a customer, for instance, can also be complicated. As a consultant, my job is to ensure the success of my clients. Being an effective consultant requires me to empathize with my client​. That involves understanding, for example, why a particular deadline is important and being able to suggest alternatives. 

If you believe that a given deadline is not feasible due to unforeseen circumstances, what other solutions can you suggest to help your client​? The date they proposed might be important since there is competition for who will launch a product first on the market. Understanding this fact, one can start to discuss which features of the product might be made optional to ensure that the team can keep the original release date while delivering the main features of the product. 

When we understand why something is important to our clients, we have more influence​ and ​assertiveness​ over our actions. 

Empathy is the key to any relationship 

If you want to be heard, you need to know how to listen. Put yourself in your listener's shoes and think about what is the kindest way to say what needs to be said. Take the responsibility of the communication to yourself, and be as interested in listening as you are in speaking.