You didn’t understand me the first time? Ok I’ll say it again – only louder!

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the message being delivered is the one that is received? Successful communication is about getting your message across so that the other person understands what your intentions are, or what knowledge you are trying to convey. This, I believe, places the onus on the person communicating to make sure the receiver is hearing the intended message. However, there are lots of barriers to effective communication including noise or external environmental factors, culture, tonality of delivery, lack of knowledge of the terms used and emotions blocking our listening skills. 

Our role when communicating is to eliminate or at least reduce these barriers to help our message be received.  

This case study centres on my mentoring a property developer who was converting a single-family dwelling into a House of Multiple Occupancy (HMO in the UK), which in this case included a small extension to the rear. The next-door neighbour to the property had phoned the client to say they wanted a site meeting; they were concerned about aspects of the building work, and in particular the close proximity of the new extension being built in relation to their house. The client explained to me that there had already been some issues with the neighbour being a nuisance so could we attend immediately.  

Examining the circumstances that developed over that next hour will help you to recognise the importance of communication skills – and in particular active listening skills – so that when you are in a conversation and as it progresses, you can engage, explore and allow the situation to evolve in order that it can be resolved amicably.  

As we drove to the property the client explained that the neighbour was separated from their life partner, but he was still actively involved in the issues with the house and as such he was showing some bravado in front of his partner. This, coupled with the issue of the property being converted to a HMO (always contentious as the perception is that these types of premises bring issues of anti-social behaviour and nuisance) indicated to me that there may be some emotions ‘flying around.’ I wondered how the client was going to conduct themselves in the circumstances and I strongly suspected that there would be learning for them going forward.

At the site we discussed various issues with the builder and things were progressing well. Then there was the knock on the door, which signalled the arrival of the neighbour. I allowed the client to answer the door and as expected the separated life partner was also in attendance and I saw my client stand upright and block the doorway in a not too welcoming way. Ahh, those emotions were showing already!! Is it wrong of me to say I realised at this point that my suspicions would prove correct and I looked forward to helping my client reflect afterwards on their communication abilities including non-verbal skills? 

The conversation started with the neighbour saying that they could find no evidence of a planning application being submitted regarding the building work that was being carried out. My client responded by stating curtly ‘all works are being carried out under Permitted Development rights’ (see link below for a full explanation). He did not elaborate further.

The neighbour replied: “I have checked the planning portal and there is no record of any planning application.”

My client replied: “I don’t need planning permission as it’s being done under Permitted Development rights.”

The neighbour responded: “But when I applied to build my extension the planning application was refused.”

My client merely re-stated: “I’m doing it under Permitted development rights.” Again, they said nothing further. 

The tone and delivery of the conversation was becoming frustrated on both parts.

Sometimes when we are involved in a conversation it is hard for us to pick up on the non-verbal cues and hear the frustration in another person’s voice. I could tell from their tone of voice that the neighbour was also becoming frustrated. Another clue was that they were repeating the same thing. 

Sometimes when the other person repeats the same question in response to our answer, we think “I’ve answered you once – what is it YOU don’t get?”. We internally put the emphasis on them to understand what we are conveying. This is especially true when we feel we are in the right; my client knew he was within his lawful rights to complete the works without full planning permission. 

However, it’s in your interests to make sure the message being received is understood by the other person. If not, why are you delivering the message in the first place?

There is a useful model which can help you understand what is going on in such a scenario called Betari’s box. It is cyclical model which means that it can begin anywhere in the cycle by either person. It is important to remember that someone though must break the cycle in the conversation, or it will continue and could deteriorate further.    

Let’s use the model to explain what was happening with my client and his neighbour. 

His attitude even before the conversation began was that the neighbour was causing a nuisance for the builder, and her separated partner getting involved was not helping matters. This in turn affected his behaviour at the door: he blocked it and stood upright making himself bigger. He had already started communicating in the conversation without even knowing the affect he might be having on the other person. 

They responded to his physical behaviour by the way they started the verbal conversation. The neighbour went straight in with the veiled accusation that the works were illegal as they thought planning approval was needed, and that they could not find any record of this. 

Note that all these things are going on in a conversation that has only lasted seconds!

My client who was expecting a prickly conversation was now having their expectations proved right (to them) and so responded in a curt manner with the retort about Permitted Development rights. 

This curt response was then answered with an equally frustrated reply by the neighbour and so if not stopped the cycle continues. 

So, if it’s in your interests to make sure your message is understood it therefore becomes your responsibility to break the cycle.

How do you break that cycle? Well, first you need to see that you are caught in it! You cannot act if you are not aware that you need to change direction or stop the cycle. This is where active listening skills come to the fore. Active listening skills mean picking up on the verbal, non-verbal and situational signals that are being given by the other person in the conversation. 

Are they becoming agitated, frustrated, louder, curt, aggressive, or just repeating the same things? All signs that you need to break the conversation and change tack. 

What strategy can you use to do so? It can be as simple as suggesting a ‘time out’ allowing you time to regroup your thoughts and emotions to dissipate. Or maybe you just need to allow them to wear themselves down until they have nothing more to say before you take back control of the conversation. 

Back to my client and the conversation with the neighbour. I felt it was time for me to ask if I could interject (break the cycle) and help with an explanation.

I then went on to explain the reasons for Permitted Development rights, how it affected the works being carried out on this property, and that the rights covering these works only came into force (in the UK) about 4 years ago. This meant that when she submitted her application for works required on her property, they were not covered by Permitted Development rights. This had caused the confusion over her not seeing an application in respect of the works on my client’s property. 

You could see the neighbour’s manner change as she became aware of the implications of what I was saying, and she realised that my client was not breaking any planning rules. She looked further relaxed and was nodding more in acknowledgement of what she was being told as she understood the situation. 

Somewhat placated regarding the planning rules it was still an issue for her that the new extension was close to her property, and more discussion needed to be had to find a solution to that issue. It was left that my client would re-discuss with his builder ways around her concerns, and possibly accommodate new ideas to not only complete the works but also enhance her property (looking at incorporating the extension she wanted years before into the design as the builder was already on location and able to do the work).

After the neighbour left, my client and I had a long discussion about what had transpired, and I helped them to understand the forces at play in the conversation e.g. Betari’s box. They were surprised at how such a short transaction and the part they played in it could have such an impact on the outcome. This was a great example of the reflect stage of the model as we examined his engage, explore and evolve stages in the conversation.

Ministry of Housing – Permitted development rights for householders