My phone rang – something of an unexpected occurrence as it usually beeps - and as I scrambled to silence my LMFAO ringtone, I saw that one of my friends who rarely calls was on the other end. As I answered, she breathlessly launched into an explanation of a text message that she had sent to my phone earlier that morning. She said that after sending it, she began to think that perhaps I had misconstrued the meaning of her earlier communication. Although in this case, I got her meaning correct, I appreciated her follow up. Too many times, I’ve learned, it is particularly difficult to interpret the tone of a text message or an email. These days, we’ve become a society that rarely communicates in person. Technology affords us the opportunity to do so in haste, often without the attention to the tone of the message, which can lead to misunderstandings.
Last week I ran into another friend at a local event and after discussing the recent brouhaha that has occurred within our city for just a few minutes, she made the comment, “Good communication is the basis for everything.”
As we parted ways, I thought more about my friend’s comment. I’m no therapist (although I’ve spent many hours in the other chair across from one) but I think she is spot on.
Concise, open, healthy communication is truly the foundation for all successful relationships. I’m not only talking about love relationships. I believe communication effects the relationship between friends, the relationship between city leaders and citizens, the relationship between a boss and his employees, the relationship between parents and their kids. Communication is a building block of strong, healthy relationships.
Corporations, school districts and government entities, and even smaller businesses spend thousands of dollars each year on communications experts who help their clients communicate effectively with the public, consumers, investors and the media. These experts assist their clients in understanding the attitudes and concerns of the groups they interact with to maintain cooperative relationships with them. “Google” the word communication and the list of self-help websites and books on the topic must number in the thousands (I didn’t actually have time to count them). Clearly, despite our efforts, we are lacking in our communication ability.
Imagine going to the doctor because you aren’t feeling well. You expect treat your health concern but you withhold some of the details of your symptoms. Without open, honest communication, your doctor’s ability to diagnose your problem correctly would certainly be compromised. So, why do we often undermine even our own efforts for effective communication?
Back in August I had the good fortune to attend a lecture on healthy communication. What I learned was, at least to me, fascinating – and surprising. Keep in mind that I thought that my communication skills were “all that and a bag of chips”. I write frequently, I love nothing better than to get up in front of a group and speak - particularly on those topics I feel passionate about – and I talk frequently with my family members and friends. But, I learned that while I may be an expert at “talking”, I’m not so great at healthy communication.
I’ve slowly begun to realize that fear often drives my own personal communication. Fear of hurting the feelings of the one on the receiving end, or my fear of repercussions, or of not being able to express my own feelings clearly and succinctly, prevents me from open healthy communication at times. Past experiences sometimes seep into my current communication process and I have to work extra hard to jolt myself into the new reality. I learned that if your reaction to a situation is overboard, then somehow that situation is about your history – a trigger. (I confess, I’m sometimes guilty!)
Poor communication can result in jumping to conclusions and making incorrect assumptions. The last time I checked, we humans were missing the capability to read minds, yet, all too often that is exactly what we end up trying to do. Silence, or lack of any kind of communication leads us to assume that the other person is thinking one thing or another, when, in reality, our assumptions are totally off base.
Communication is 80 percent listening, I learned. (Ok, so I’m not so good at that – probably better at 80 percent talking – I was convicted). The lecturer talked about the different communication styles (fodder for a future column perhaps), but who knew that not only do I have to make a better effort to listen more, I must understand that that we humans, based on our past experiences, have learned to fashion a communication style that works for each of us. For example, some individuals use an avoidant communication style in an effort to avoid pain. They avoid talking about, or addressing, an issue altogether.
Even motivational speaker Tony Robbins has said, “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”
The goal here is to develop a congruent communication style, which is one where everything matches – affect and feelings. For those of us who grew up in families where it wasn’t safe to share feelings, this may be extremely difficult. It takes practice, but it can be learned.
I came home after attending the lecture feeling empowered. I felt I could whip my poor communication skills into shape just as I train my muscles to respond at the gym or on the tennis court. After all, recognizing the problem is half the battle, right? Let me tell you, like everything else, it takes practice. It’s a daily grind, but I’m not giving up. I’m learning to be a better listener (I’m maybe now at 40 percent). I am slowly learning to take the wheel and drive.
Freud said that depression is the manifestation of inside anger. Those feelings that go unexpressed have much more power and control over us than the feelings that we put into words. I’d rather have more power than my unexpressed feelings, wouldn’t you?
That being said, I think we should start making a yearly communications class a must for every student beginning in the seventh grade – ok, well maybe not that soon, but at least by freshman year. It’s that important.
The 12 essential ingredients for open, honest communication:
- Be willing to risk.
- Be honest – you can be honest about your thoughts and feelings without being brutal. Don’t allow fear to drive.
- Ask permission from the individual you wish to talk with before launching into a discussion.
- Make “I” statements - express ownership, not blame.
- It is ok to express anger. Don’t make personal attacks.
- Allow for differences of opinion.
- Listen to the other person before responding.
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings as best you can. This shows that you are listening and that you have empathy.
- Be sure you are communicating with the right person.
- Show caring.
- Make statements rather than interrogating.
- Show integrity. “Be impeccable with your word”.