Speakers speak at 125-175 words per minute. Listeners think at 450-600 words per minute. That’s a ratio of at least 1:4.
Word Count: 661
Reading Time: 2.6 minutes
“We’ve tried everything with this group. We’ve told them about the new process, we’ve changed their incentives, we’ve told them again, we’ve given them training after training – we’ve done everything, and they just won’t use it.”
“And you’re committed to this new process no one is using?”
“We have no choice – it’s mandated.”
Ah. The mandate. Maybe it’s a new regulation in your industry, or an edict from the CEO. You didn’t get any input, and now you have to deliver the bad news to your team and live with the consequences. It’s understandable that you want to get this over with quickly. So you present and teach and answer questions. You communicate.
And the more you communicate, the more of a deficit you create. Every word you speak causes the listener’s thoughts to multiply like bunnies.
It’s simple math: Every minute you talk, you fall behind by 325-375 words per minute. You cannot push information fast enough to outpace my ability to interpret – and misinterpret – it.
There you are, going on and on about how this mandate is, um, required, and 72 other synonyms for “mandated,” so you have to do it and shut up, shut up, shut up, stop freaking me out with your questions can’t you see I’m stuck with this too and just do it because it’s mandated.
“Any questions?,” you then ask. But it’s already too late. If you’ve talked for 10 minutes, we’re already 3250-3750 words ahead of you. Catching to us is going to take a lot longer than 10 minutes because we can only do that at the speed of speech, which will generate the much faster speed of thought and we will get farther and farther out of synch. All your speech will be about the mandate. And all my thoughts will be about how the situation affects me.
We have a communication deficit of epic proportions. Many teams are living with such a vast communication deficit that they need hours of catch-up to get current.
And that’s the situation when no one has misheard, misconstrued, or misinterpreted anything. Finding and correcting that is going to take much longer. If two people have gotten something wrong, it’s going to take forever. If you’ve talked for 20 minutes, the situation may take longer to resolve than you have time left on this planet.
Are you starting to understand why communication strategies so often backfire? Many, many competent, conscientious leaders are stuck in this communication loop that pushes their team away from them, even as they do everything “right.”
A better approach
Your employees don’t need more words coming at them. They need someone to listen to the words that have piled up in their brains while all that information was being pushed at them.
Somewhere in that 450 words per minute is the idea you need more than you need to be protected from negativity or be in control of the situation. You may be too blinded by anxiety to see the genius hidden behind what looks like resistance, or the loyalty disguised as opposition. You may believe that you don’t have time to listen to any of this.
Which isn’t quite accurate, is it? I think you have a clear choice. You can make room for some of those thoughts as you deliver the message and be able to channel all the energy behind them. Or, you can listen to them in tiny installments for months and years, like a million paper cuts.
A Communication Word Problem
If thoughts outpace words 4:1, and you have 2 ears and 1 mouth, how long should you speak before pausing to listen?
I can’t wait to hear your answers to this. Please give me an ear-full in the comments.