If we want to communicate, as opposed to just speak, a message needs to be understood by the person listening. That is the essence of communicating.

We can’t control how they think, what they understand or indeed whether they want to receive the message, but we can continue to tweak our message or try different approaches. This feels more productive than getting frustrated or annoyed with the listener.

Zen Koan: Empty Cup

Let’s play this out with a very simple Zen Koan (parable) called the Empty Cup.

A university professor visited a famous Zen master to discuss Zen. They talked and talked but the professor didn’t seem satisfied. It came time for the master to serve tea. He filled the professor’s cup to the brim and continued to pour.

The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

“The cup is full. No more will go in!” the professor blurted out.

“Like this cup,” the Zen master said, “you are full of your own thoughts and opinions. How can you see Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Can there be teaching without learning?

I used the example of a Zen Koan because Zen is often lauded for the simplicity and clarity of its communication. In this instance, it is implied that the professor leaves fully enlightened. He may not have.

The point is simply that it doesn’t matter how profound the method, if the listener fails to grasp the message then what purpose has it served?

It is thus crucial for the communicator to assess the audience and choose the most effective method to convey their message. Sometimes, this might mean altering one’s normal approach, using different language, offering further explanation or even admitting when a particular method of communication wasn’t effective and trying another.

In essence, true communication is a two-way street: it is about both sending and receiving, speaking and listening, teaching and learning. Both parties have roles and responsibilities in ensuring understanding is achieved. When communicating, it is just important that we play our part.

Furthermore, as noted by Tom Frengos, teacher, coach and author, we might also be asking:

  • What is happening in the space between us? and
  • How are we relating to each other?

Questions in the Image:

  • What responsibility do I have for being heard?
  • If you are not being heard, ask yourself:
    • What am I assuming?
    • How might I say this differently?
    • What other approach might I take?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

How to Speak, How to Listen by Mortimer J. Adler (link to Amazon.co.uk). This book breaks down the art of communication into its essential components, providing insights and techniques on both speaking effectively and listening actively.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. This question really hits home. In nurturing curiosity, what might I do differently to communicate the core message? How might how I communicate be getting in the way of the message?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.