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Interview with Eileen Petzold-Bradley, Meta-Communication
So welcome to a new episode of Experts! Speak English! Today, I have a good friend of mine on the show, Eileen Petzold Bradley. We met in Berlin but she was born in Panama and now she’s no longer in Berlin, she’s in South Florida. So, Eileen, tell us, what are you doing in South Florida?
Eileen: Well, escaping German cold weather for number one after 24 years in Berlin. But yeah, I started a Ph.D.-programme four years ago in conflict resolution and just trying to being close while I’m in dissertation mode and looking for opportunities here for work and tying up those old loose ends in the university and then seeing if there’s a new life chapter here.
Corinne: Exciting. Fabulous. I love new life chapters. I’m moving around all the time and each time we move, I discover something new or meet somebody fabulous. Every chapter has something else waiting for you, doesn’t it? Today we wanted to talk a little bit about meta communication. Now explain to our listeners what meta communication is.
Eileen: Right. Meta communication is communicating on how you want to communicate. What that means is “meta” is like that bird’s eye perspective. And what happens is a lot of times we just launch into communicating without kind of those ground rules or establishing how best to communicate. And everybody has their own communication styles. If you come from a different culture, there might be certain taboo topics or things that are better left unsaid. But if you don’t kind of establish that playground on how do we want to talk with each other, you can have miscommunications.
You can apply this in workplace, personal, or even if you’re travelling to a new country, how best do I want to approach that person and then establish that, you know, how can we communicate about this? We’re having these issues. What’s the best way to approach you? And many times we just don’t ask that initial question. We just launch right into our ways of doing things, and that can really backfire. So yeah, there’s a famous model called the four-ears or the four-sides communication model and that is developed by Schulz von Thun, which is a German communication expert. And he basically looks that we communicate with four ears. We might hear with the facts-ear or relationship-ear or self-disclosure-ear or appeal-ear and so many times we might hear or we might get a communication, but we filter it.
Corinne: Right. So, listening in different ways for different conversations, is that right? Or different people, maybe?
Eileen: Right. So if we understand that, that, “Okay, I have a relationship with this person, it could be that they’re telling me something and I’m interpreting it as an order because that’s the behaviour behind it”. And so I’m filtering everything that’s being said to me through that one ear. And what happens is miscommunication. And so, you know, if you want to have good communication, sometimes you have to understand those types of relationships. So, meta communication helps, particularly when you have to do a difficult conversation to kind of create that safe space to “How best can we communicate?”.
Corinne: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, we all grow up thinking, “Oh, I learnt to speak at the age of four. Obviously, I can speak”, you know, we can all speak. But there’s a difference between being able to speak and being able to communicate. And I think there’s another difference between communicating and being intentional about your communication.
Eileen: Right. You know, it’s also, I believe you have to learn to communicate like, intentionally. And a lot of that has to do with active listening, really trying to listen, observe and then learn to validate what you’re hearing by asking like open ended questions. You know, “Did I understand you correctly, what you meant to say or is that what you’re trying to imply?”. So, oftentimes when we communicate, we don’t get a validation back. And then finally to evaluate after. But we don’t go through all those steps when we’re communicating. We just launch into communication and then we react. And so, yeah, it’s important to kind of take a step back when you feel like communication’s going in a way that feels like it’s getting off track and learn to… (Corinne: (coughs) Sorry.) No problem. (Corinne: I was trying to hold it for as long as possible but I couldn’t)
Yeah. I think that’s really important. And then those people that are active listeners and really have learnt to listen, they communicate usually when it’s the right time, they gauge that, they have a sense for that.
You know, now it’s time to say something.
They use silence,
They use pacing
The way they communicate.
And so these are all techniques that will help you communicate better. But, you know, where do you learn that, right?
It’s after you fail miserably in a communication that maybe you start looking into ways to retrain yourself or you get this type of leadership training when you’re, you know, in a supervisory role. But, we must communicate all the time, it doesn’t matter what culture you’re in or across cultures.
Within cultures, there’s constant conflicts and miscommunications. And that has to do with not establishing clear communication channels.
Corinne: Yeah, and I think actually what you said there about communication channels, I think that’s become more complex, hasn’t it?
Because these days we have so many different channels available to us. There’s not just email and telephone like there used to be 20 years ago. Now there’s, I mean, you can’t even just assume people have WhatsApp. They might have WhatsApp, they might have Signal, they might have Threema, they might have some other whatever I haven’t thought of. And some people might be using the typical old SMS, you know, like iMessage or whatever.
So, it’s a minefield. And then on top of that, you’ve got the fact that, you know, when is the end of work now? You know, we all tend to be transfixed to that thing at the end of our arm, which is normally an iPhone, you know, or a smartphone.
So we’re kind of always on, even if they’re not actively working or being paid to work, we’re always on, aren’t we? And I think that’s very difficult to determine, “Okay, how am I going to get in touch with you and what time is okay for you?”. You know, for somebody else, it might be okay to call at eight, somebody else might prefer, you know, doesn’t mind being called till ten, but you need to know that, you can’t guess it.
Eileen: Right. And so that’s important to say, you know, “If we’re going to do business together…
What’s the best way to communicate with each other?
What’s your style?
How do you like to communicate?
What are things that you don’t like to communicate?”.
Corinne: That’s it sn’t it? Sometimes to say what really winds you up and then you normally get to the real
Eileen: What doesn’t work for you? And, you know, we never ask those things, right? And they might say, “Hey, you know, no go is calling me after hours or sending me little emojis, smiley faces when you should be calling me instead.
Corinne: Yeah, well, some people really hate audio messages, you know, when you do a voice message? Some people really, really get wound up by people sending them audio messages, especially if somebody hasn’t been disciplined enough to plan it beforehand and they’re just droning on and on and on in a voice message.
Eileen: Right. Well, people think, you know, maybe it’s time savings. Like I send a quick message, it avoids half an hour on the phone. There’s pros and cons to everything but I don’t know, I think sometimes an old fashioned phone call, you know, people just don’t do that today. Like, “Oh, phone call? Like, to talk?”, right? Like, yeah, communication would be nice, like verbal, so…
Corinne: And you can hear so much in somebody’s voice, you can hear if they’re agitated or frustrated or struggling to find the right word or, or… You know, kind of feeling not being taken for granted or not being taken seriously. You can hear all of that if you’re actively listening.
Eileen: Well, in technology, you know, it can aid quick communication, but it can also hinder open communication because, you know, you hide behind that. So, it’s just easier for me to, like you said, send a quick message rather than having that kind of hard or difficult conversation.
Corinne: Yeah, it’s very easy to hide behind technology, isn’t it? You know, for the sake of not wanting to have that awkward conversation?
Eileen: Yeah, exactly.
Corinne: Yeah. So the four ears…
Eileen: Yeah, it’s called the four ear or the four sides model or the four ears. So, you know, if people are interested, they can Google it, but it’s an interesting exercise. I learnt this in coaching where you put two people back-to-back and then you say something and then you have to guess “Was that the factual ear?”, “Were they saying something just to inform you?”, or “What else was behind that?”.
Corinne: Right, they’re back-to-back so they don’t see the facial expressions, they just have to listen.
Eileen: And it’s just funny because unless you’re really good at communication, you’ll probably get it wrong each time, you’ll misread it. And so, it’s an invaluable exercise to realise, “Okay, I’m really not picking up on that signal correctly”.
Corinne: Yeah, that’s a wonderful exercise. I love exercises like that where you’re like “Oh my goodness!” (…)
Eileen: Where it’s like “Oh boy, I keep getting this wrong or I’m misreading it” and so, how often do we misread things and then we don’t reflect why?
Corinne: You know, very few of us make time to reflect.
Eileen: Yeah, reflective listening it is important, but reflective practise. So if you’re a leader or you’re a person working in these types of teams to really have that downtime and evaluate. I just read something today that says, “Active listening is an act of love” and “Love is listen”. The “O” is “observe”. I think I said this earlier, “V” is “validate” and then “E” is “evaluate”. So, when I speak to you or when I listen to you, it’s with love.
Corinne: There is a book, I don’t know whether you’ve read that, called “The Five Languages of Love” – have you ever read that?
Eileen: Yes, it’s been a while.
Corinne: I gave it to somebody for a wedding present recently.
Eileen: But I think that’s it. Being a coach, a conflict coach myself, the more you really intently listen to people, they feel respected, they feel validated, they feel what they’re saying is important. And then they feel more encouraged to speak what they need to say. So, they have that courage to maybe speak up or use their voice to get the point they want across. They’re using that as an instrument. Your voice, your inflexion and what you’re saying has value. And so I think a lot of times we just don’t approach communication that way. We should bring value and everything we do when we communicate with another person rather than it leads to breakdown and closure. So, it’s a challenge, you know, I struggle with it. I’m by no means – even though I study it and practise it, you know, and help others – I struggle with it in my own life. So, it’s practise what we preach, right? So, you know, since I started studying conflict resolution, it’s been a self-transformation, like, I’ve got, you know, if I’m going to be at peace then I need to be peace and a lot of things inside me are not peaceful, there’s a lot of upheaval, so how do I work on that? So when I am helping others, then, you know, it’s genuine. So I think that’s the (..)
Corinne: Do you ever find yourself in the supermarket or you see people arguing and you’re like, “Ooh, I’m in conflict mode now”.
Eileen: You know, sometimes my first feeling is, conflict can be – you can look at it both ways. I think in Chinese language, the definition of conflict means either crisis or opportunity. That’s like the translation. So, it can be an opportunity to change things into a positive direction. So, when people are arguing, right, sometimes it’s necessary to let emotions boil to the surface. In our culture, maybe Western culture, we are taught to control that. So, they’re finding more and more like in mediation and research now that when people allow their emotions finally to explode, it’s healthy because it’s finally gotten out. They’re not suppressing that. And then, of course, they have to channel that energy, hopefully in a positive direction.
But, I don’t know, I just think when I see people arguing, it’s a battle of energy and power and struggles. And that upsets me, because I think: “Can’t we all just get along and communicate properly?”. But, how are we going to do that if we don’t have those explosions or crises where we have to shift and we have to learn?
And so maybe that’s important, too, when you’re having those conversations to realise, “I just have to get through it. It’s might be difficult. I have to learn to listen. I have to learn to understand the emotion from that other person”. You know, some people are calm and collected and some people aren’t, you know? And of course, most people want to avoid those kind of belligerent or arrogant or (..) but oftentimes those people are just really frustrated.
Corinne: Yeah, but then there are also other people, and they’re constantly looking for a way to wind people up or get their backs up or, you know, kind of put something in a corner. There are those people as well, right? And if you happen to work with one of those, then that’s likely to be a little bit taxing.
Eileen: Yeah, well, what happens is, maybe it’s oftentimes those people have like a bully kind of character and most people accommodate to that, they don’t speak up or they don’t say, “Hey, listen, you know, that’s enough”, like (..)
Corinne: It’s very easy to let it slip, isn’t it? You know, where you think, “Oh, well, never mind. Let it go, let it go, let it go”. And then you think at one point, “Hang on a minute! What’s going on?”, like you kind of wake up almost and realise that this is just an insane situation. And I’ve got to say something now and then it’s all pent-up, it often comes out in a maybe not ideal form of communication because you are so wound up, but it’s like a sudden realization, “Hey, hang on a minute. You can’t talk to me like that!”.
Eileen: Right. Well, sometimes, like you said, it’s those triggers, you know, how far do you get pushed until your trigger goes off? And some people know how to push your triggers really well and do it like a master. And then, you know, at some (..)
Corinne: Most kids know how to do that to their parents.
Eileen: Oh yeah, they’ve been studying us since birth, right? Observe the way we communicate and what intention and how and our tone, you know all of those things. Maybe we have to look at it like as a little kid, they don’t know how to speak, but they’re observing everything that’s going on.
So, when you go into a situation, learn to observe first rather than start rattling off, just patiently. And that kind of goes back to the meta communication.
“What is going on here from that bird’s eye perspective?”,
“How am I interpreting this?”,
“What is before I launch myself into a situation that kind of pre-step?”
We just don’t do that.
Corinne: So, what do you do then in the situation? You know how some people are really hysterical and they lose their temper and they’re throwing their arms around and they’re swearing and they’re being personal rather than professional. Is it best to just let these people just let it flow and I’ll wait until they’re ready and then eventually I might get a chance to say something or do you need to be quiet, thick skinned, and just say, “Whoa, hang on a minute here?”.
Eileen: Well, I guess it depends on your position or your authority, but I think it’s important – the person might have to vent and then let them and then say, “I hear that you’re really frustrated”. And use those words that they’re saying back. So, this is like a typical coaching model. They might be saying a lot of things: “I hear you’re frustrated. I hear you’re really angry about xyz. Tell me a little bit more about that” – “Oh, yeah”, you know, and then “Okay, so what you’re trying to say is xyz” – “Yeah, exactly!”, right? “So, why do you feel that way?”, and so nobody’s asking them, right?
Corinne: They’re not getting an opportunity to actually get it all out.
Eileen: You want to calm them down, so
you let them explode and you just gently calm them down through being calm,patient, reflecting what you’re hearing, identifying, you know, “You seem to be really bothered by this. Has this happened to you before? Why are you feeling
Tell me more. Just explain that in your own words”.
So that’s just all of a sudden you’re taking power from them because you’re calming them down.
And then you can use your voice inflexion like you can start talking slower and say,
“I understand that you’re having troubles right now. Why don’t you explain that to me a little bit more?”.
Corinne: I think if you say to somebody, “Yeah, yeah, I understand, I understand”, it sounds like “I don’t understand”, doesn’t it, actually? But if you say, “Hmm, I think I understand. Tell me a bit more about this”, it has a completely different dynamic, doesn’t it?
Eileen: I think it’s those powers of clarifying questions, open-ended questions, don’t ask the person yes-or-no questions:
“Are you angry?” –
“Yes”, okay, well, that’s clear, right?
So, if you ask them a yes-or-no question, then you want to get beyond that. And then you can also say, “Look, we need to take a time-out”. In mediation, if there are two parties and one is just to say, “Look, I understand you’re really upset and this is really important to you and I really want to discuss it with you”, maybe when you’re just a little more calm. Can you just take 5 minutes, go outside, go for a walk, think about what you want to say, what’s really important and then let’s have that conversation in 5 minutes from now or come back or, you know, not “I don’t want to talk to you anymore, this conversation’s over”.
(Corinne: “Shut up!”)
Right. So, you cut off communication and then they’re really angry. So sometimes it’s just, “Hey, just take a break. Let’s reconvene. Are you okay with that? Are you able to discuss this when you’re feeling a little bit more able to do so?”.
Corinne: Yeah. And you can also shift it the other way around and say, “You know I think I need maybe 10 minutes. Do you mind if we just reconvene in about 10 minutes’ time? I need to buy a break; I’m going to grind myself a coffee. Is that okay?”, you know? And then most people don’t feel quite so attacked then like, “Oh, she thinks I’m being hysterical”, you know, it’s a bit more neutral.
Eileen: Yeah, I think that’s it. Just try to reframe the situation and that’s that meta communication and go to the balcony. “What is going on here? Why is this person just blowing their stack? Why are they so upset?”, and in that moment, the heat of the moment, you can’t figure that out.
Corinne: I’m going to try and summarise what I’ve heard so far: In terms of conflict resolution we need to think about the meta communication “How are we going to communicate with each other?”. We need to think about this four-ear syndrome?
Corinne: Ah, yeah.
Corinne: The four-ear-model and I’ll put some notes in with the show notes, which is englishspeakingexperts/140 – then we need to think about things like interpretation. We’re thinking about clarifying through open-ended questions and try and resist those closed questions where they can say, “Nope, nope, nope”.
And in terms of getting feedback, it’s really important to give that, but also to ask lots of questions, be open minded and establish, you know what are the no-goes, what don’t you like? What can you not stand?”.
You know, like I work with a couple of people in Switzerland and they cannot stand people being late. It drives them absolutely crazy. If you know that in advance, you’ve got a head start, right? And then also I think I do have an episode about talking to sensitive souls, I’ll link to that in the show notes, but do practice active listening. And Eileen had a wonderful analogy with love. I’m going to put that in the show notes, as well. And think about that battle of energy and be prepared to take some time-out. I think that’s about it, isn’t it, Eileen?
Eileen: Yeah. I think if people can
take away from this podcast those tips to reflect again on how communication
went off track and how to get it back on track is really key.
Corinne: Yeah, definitely. And there is
always light at the end of the tunnel if you really get to the root of the
problem, but only if you dig deep enough.
Thank you so much, Eileen.
It’s late for me and early for you, I believe?
Eileen: Yes. It’s almost lunchtime, it’s
dinner time for you.
Corinne: Okay. Well, thank you so much
for my listeners. We do need a communication challenge, Eileen. I always give
my listeners a communication challenge. What would you give them as the
Eileen: Well, a challenge is to diagnose your own communication style and figure out “How do I best communicate? What are my triggers?” and, you know, maybe your pet peeves in communication, like you said, maybe there are certain words that really hit that trigger. Yeah, kind of take your own internal diagnostics, you know?
Corinne: A great idea.
Eileen: You know, it’s easy to say what I don’t like about the other person, but maybe even ask others,
“Hey, how do I generally communicate and ask others?”,
because this could be a real blind spot for you that you think you communicate well but then when you really ask your peers or people that work with you, they’re like, “Uh, …well…,”, you have it then, you know, this is your blind spot. And that is the biggest challenge when people hold up the mirror and try to show you your blind spot. Of course, you’re rejecting it or you’re oblivious to that.
Corinne: We don’t see it as a big deal, you know?
Eileen: That’s right. It’s like “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem”. So that IS the problem, right? When you hear things like that. So always look within because – I think in Buddhist culture – how you react is how communication will go. A lot of times our reactions lead to miscommunication as well.
Corinne: Definitely. Yeah. Fantastic! Well, thank you so much. Do let us know when your PhD is ready and I’ll have you back on the show for a third time.
Eileen: Forecasting ten years from now.
Corinne: No, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t think it will take that long. Okay. Fantastic.
So, thank you ever so much for joining me today, both to you, Eileen, and to my listeners. And I would say we’ll see each other next week, same time, same place, Thursday afternoon for another episode of Experts! Speak English! So go out there and be the very best communicator that you can be!