How Ping Pong Strategy Improves Your Workplace Communication

Posted 18 Oct 2019 by Melissa Summer

You probably couldn't make it through the day without talking to someone.

Even if you took a day off from communicating, you’d probably have to explain it the next day to your coworkers, family and others. 

Communication is critical to our society. And it’s essential for most people at work. 

Communication is even more critical for people in managerial positions. And essential when you’re talking to someone virtually (text, email, phone call). 

But if communication is so important, why do you have so many misunderstandings?

A recent survey conducted online by Harris Poll with 2,000 U.S. adults (about half were employed, and a third of the employed people were managers) showed that 69% of the managers said that they’re often uncomfortable communicating with employees

Why do you think so many managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees?

Because it’s hard.

And it doesn’t always go well. 

And communication breakdowns are not always the same (counter to the Led Zeppelin lyrics).

Most miscommunication stems from differences. We have different viewpoints, come from different cultures and have had different experiences. Our personalities are different. Our interpersonal needs are different. How we take in information, make decisions, how much we need to be included and how much risk we take are all different. 

While I was thinking about this topic and getting ready to put pen to paper (or more accurately, chipping home manicure to laptop keyboard), a coworker invited me to take a break to play ping pong. 

We started hitting the little orange ball back and forth to warm up.

But once we started the game, my coworker started putting spin on the ball nearly every time he served. And I couldn't return the ball to save my life.

It was driving me insane. 

No matter how I tried to return the empty little orange ball, it would fly off the table or plunk into the net. After an embarrassing point deficit, he said “the best way to counter my spin is to return the ball with the same type of spin.”

And bing! A lightbulb went on somewhere over my head. 

The next few plays, he hit the ball to me with topspin. And I returned it with the same topspin.

Then he sliced it sideways, and I sliced it back and it didn’t fly off the table. 

As I sat back down at my desk, I realized good communication uses the same strategy.
Conversations go back and forth most of the time. And sometimes we say something and the conversation stops.

In this case, a few things could happen:

Both players realize we need to pick up the ball and start again. 

One player realizes the ball is gone and points it out so both players know.

Or (worst case scenario) the conversation keeps going because the proverbial communication “ball” gets dropped but one person doesn't realize it. Or maybe no one realizes it.

One of the ways you can communicate better at work is by 'reading' the other person’s style and speaking their language. It’s like playing the other person’s style of ping pong. 

If you’ve done an MBTI® or FIRO® training, you’ve got an advantage in the communication arena because you know something substantial about the other person’s personality or interpersonal needs. 

Even if you don’t necessarily know someone’s MBTI type preferences, you might know they like concrete facts and figures, data and numbers. 

Or perhaps they always feel more at ease when you start the conversation with asking personal questions about how they’re doing or what they did over the weekend? 

The one caveat to reading someone else's style is it helps to know your own style first. You have to be self-aware enough to know if their style is the same, similar or different from your own. 

Be aware of your perceptual biases.

Don’t assume your perspective is the objective truth.

When there’s a problem, start with “this is how I see the situation…” and then ask the other person how they see the situation. 

Why?

When we’re communicating, we’re trying to relay information by passing it through our own subjective filters (like knowledge, experiences, and interpersonal needs and personality type).

Then the person receiving that message interprets it through their own subjective filter. 

This theory of communication is known as the transactional model

It’s like two people throwing a ball of clay back and forth. 

Each time the other person catches the clay, it changes shape a little. And over time, this back and forth (hopefully) created an understanding between two people. Just like the complex shape that the ball of clay has taken on. 

Another way to communicate better is to be an active listener.

Nowadays, it’s easy to check messages and notifications on our phones, hop into email on a laptop, or let your mind wander. 

But you wouldn’t do any of these things while playing ping pong (at least not if you care about winning).  

To be an active listener, get rid of any distractions when someone is talking. Be mindful of their tone, their voice, their word choice and their body language. 

At this point if you’re competitive at all, you’re probably wondering about the end result of the ping pong game. 

I lost. 

A few times, actually. 

But at least I got a blog out of it. 

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