Sunday, January 31, 2010

Defining the Purpose for a Communication

A common problem for nearly everyone seeking to improve their communication skills is making assumptions about the PURPOSE of the communication at hand. Typically, we assume that our counterpart shares our understanding of the purpose for our discussion. Quite often they don't. Quite often they are curious as to what your purpose is. That curiosity can affect their perception of your objectivity. Left alone, this lack of clarity can undermine the discussion to the point that communication that WOULD have been successful is not, simply because we didn't understand the purpose. This often manifests itself with the phrase "Why are we even talking about this?", "I'm not sure what you are after here", or "Well why didn't you just SAY so!?".
The PURPOSE statement has two parts. It contains 1) the REASON for having the discussion at all AND 2) the mutual objective you and your counterpart wish to accomplish. In other words, it is a statement describing WHAT you wish to accomplish AND the mutual objective you both hope to gain via that accomplishment. The mutual objective (that which you both hope to gain) can be made explicit using the phrase "in order to".

For example, you might be discussing choices that your company faces in order to reach more customers. The purpose statement for such a discussion could be "we are discussing ways to reach more customers in order to increase revenue".

Typical phrases contained in the first part of the purpose statement focus on either 1) understanding each other's perspectives or 2) coming to an agreement or a decision and look like this:

  • "Exploring perspectives regarding..."
  • "Coming to a decision regarding...
  • "Resolving our differences on..."

Phrases in the second part of the purpose statement (after the "in order to" phrase) depend on the issue at hand and are best (most engaging) if they contain something specific that both parties are very interested in accomplishing.

In our example, if one party was more interested in reaching more customers as a way of building customer loyalty than increasing revenue, we may rephrase the statement to "we are discussing ways to reach more customers in order to increase customer loyalty and revenue".

The most important aspect is that all parties involved feel that they understand what specifically is to be gained in the discussion AND that it is meaningful to them. Without this, it is difficult to get buy-in, engagement, and commitment. Practice how to formulate a compelling PURPOSE statement.


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