Do I Talk to a Robot?

What happens, if in communication we do not address us as human beging.

I have written to GEZ that my father recently passed away and that I am terminating the connection at the end of the quarter because until then someone else will be living there. The reply letter starts with: “Dear Ms. Seidel, the contribution account xyz (my father’s number) should be transferred to your name.” …. Huh?
I read the line, am irritated, notice how incomprehension and anger come up in me. I shake my head, laugh derisively and think “what kind of place is this?”. OK, the further reading says that I have to take over the connection for the time after the death and it is then cancelled at the end of the quarter. The feeling that I am dealing with an uncaring robot at GEZ remains.

What happens when we humans feel misunderstood?

If I notice that my contact person is not responding to me, I feel misunderstood. I am probably irritated at first and try to make this clear. If that doesn’t work, I feel annoyed or frustrated. And if anger, rage, incomprehension, frustration or the like resonate with us humans, communication becomes difficult. We end up in a realm and, in the worst case, can no longer think and act clearly. My thoughts or words may become aggressive (“What a sh…”). Irrational thoughts may occur “I’ll pay him back!”. At worst, irrational or inappropriate behavior may also follow, e.g., a slap on the table, a screaming complaint, or some other “revenge”, for example, that I no longer pay fees to the GEZ.

What happens when I feel seen and understood?

If my contact person responds to me, at best summarizes my concern in his or her words or reacts according to my expectations, I feel understood, I realize that my counterpart has perceived me and my concern. I then have good or neutral emotions, in no case negative ones. I can move on. This does not mean that my counterpart should never say “no”. After all, not all my expectations or needs can always be met. But even when they say “no,” it’s helpful to know that I’m being seen as a person and that my request has been received. I notice this when the other person considers my needs, emotions and interests. If they say “Unfortunately, we can’t do that” it might still annoy me and I might not like the answer. But the word “unfortunately” at least tells me that the other person recognizes that I don’t like the answer and that my expectations have not been met.

What makes for good person-to-person communication in a professional context?

  • Listen actively to what your counterpart is saying! Just listening is not enough! It is about LISTENING ACTIVELY! That means to perceive at least the content, but even better to also percive the speech melody or gestures and facial expressions.
  • If what is said does not contain a request to do something or that you put forward ideas or solutions, hold back on this (for now).
  • Do you have your own story about the topic or your own opinion? Hold those back as well.
  • Respond to what has been said. Pick up in your words what you heard, at least in your eye contact or facial expression. Ask questions.
  • Only after at least one loop back to the other person can you bring up your suggestions or stories. Ideally, after you have asked for permission.

What good communication needs

For communication to work well, it is important that all involved recognize each other as human beeing with feelings, needs, values and interests. In a professional context, it may be desirable to communicate on a factual level only, but it can still be irritating and “not go down well” with the other person. For example, a colleague says, “The paper in the printer is empty”. The colleague responds, “I’m on vacation tomorrow”. Objectively correct. Do you still miss something? Certainly!
Another example: In the agreements in my team coaching sessions, participants often suggest “not to take what is said personally”. How is that supposed to work? That is virtually impossible. We are human beings. And people have emotions and – hopefully – think about what is said! We are not uncaring robots!

Communicate not as a robot, but as a human being

In professional communication from person to person, it is of course primarily about the factual level, i.e. about working something out or getting something done. However, needs, values, interests and expectations always resonate.
In my letter to the GEZ, I wanted to report the death of my father and cancel the contract at a certain time. That was my interest. I expected a feedback that my letter has arrived and to when the cancellation is confirmed. Preferably, on my desired date. An answer that begins with a “condolence”, as all insurance companies did, would have fulfilled my need to be perceived not as an administrator but as a grieving daughter. To read in the first sentence of the reply letter. “the account is to be transferred to your name”, however, did not fulfill any of that at all.

I wish you good communication in the future!

Claudia Seidel


Epilogue to Robots:

I am convinced that in the future “robots” will be programmed to communicate empathically, that is, to “empathize” with the words of the other person. So it may seem real, although it is “only” programmed and based on probabilities. Nevertheless, at least today there are many chat bots or avatars that also fail at this: by answering my question in boring standard texts or even providing wrong answers. And I hope that we will always recognize whether we are talking to humans or to machines.

Coaching Methods

Coaching is not training. Nevertheless, I like to include background knowledge in my business coaching sessions, e.g. on communication – concretized to what my clients describe and what their concerns are. I had found the “VEIB model” described above years ago in a decision and problem solving script. Unfortunately, it did not say who wrote it.

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