Jeannie Kahwajy on Effective Communication

By Stephanie Swenson, Teacher

“People remember how you make them feel,” Jeannie Kahwajy, PhD, advised the Bing staff at a lecture on tools for effective communication during fall set-up week. Her talk, “Effective Interactions: The Language of Leadership,” was on Sept. 1, 2011.

Kahwajy, founder and CEO of the management consulting firm Effective Interactions, provides consulting and coaching to help leaders increase the effectiveness of their interactions. She bases her work on theories about communication, interaction and leadership that she formulated while working toward her PhD in engineering management at Stanford.

Kahwajy’s talk focused on how to have effective interactions by changing one’s perspective on communication. She explained the major difference between engaging with someone’s spirit and talking at someone’s head, suggesting that engaging with someone’s spirit and talking to their heart enables you to change their head (or the way they think about things).

Kahwajy went on to dissect effective interactions; their qualities include making oneself truly able to receive information, being open to learning rather than judging others’ behaviors and maintaining the mindset “I am ready to change” rather than “You should change.” Our pre-existing biases and our expectations and assumptions of what should happen are barriers that lead to ineffective communication, she said. The solution is adopting a learning approach: shifting the focus to ourselves so we enter interactions willing to change our own perspective. She used the metaphor of an iceberg to explain how this works: The visible part is our behavior and below the surface is our intention. If one’s intentions are to be a learner and one is ready to receive in a way that invites other people to update one’s beliefs and biases, then one is breaking down the barriers to effective communication and is thus able to realize effective interactions.

Kahwajy then offered several anecdotes illustrating her point that “people give to those who are ready to receive,” among them an account of the theft of her purse and its return. Kahawajy’s purse was stolen on a train trip from France to Switzerland by three pickpockets, one of whom, she later learned from the police, remained in her train car for seven minutes until the next stop. So when Kahwajy began to announce what she needed,

declaring the words “I want my notes back,” the thief on her train overheard. She also repeated that she desired the thief to place her purse by a trash can at the next stop. Kahwajy’s purse, with its entire contents, appeared at the train station two days later. The reason she got her purse back, she told us, was that she asked only for her notes (what she truly wanted) and not her credit cards and other miscellaneous contents. Kahwajy explained that it’s a law of human nature that people give to those who are ready to receive and that effective communication is helping others understand your intent (what exactly you are ready to receive). When we communicate what we really, really want, we enlist people who understand our intent to be on our team and then successful interactions with others occur.

Following these surprising stories, a communication exercise allowed the staff to see that some types of responses can extend relationships while others close them down. Staff paired up for the exercise, with one partner making a request and the other answering either “No” or “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…” We saw that only the “Yes, and…” response led to the ability to continue the conversation and allow for truly effective communication because it indicates an open and modifiable relationship.

Following her talk, Kahwajy fielded questions. Teachers asked questions about how her advice is applicable to our lives at Bing and how we can eliminate barriers to effective communication. She answered that we can use these techniques when communicating with our teaching teams, children’s parents and even the children; she also suggested that using the “Yes, and…” response with an open mindset can help eliminate our barriers to effective communication. She concluded by sharing her appreciation for our interest and insightful questions about her theories. Learning about Kahwajy’s theories energized us. We intend to use her techniques while working with children and parents and in working with our teaching teams.