Communication. Cue eye roll and groan! Communication seems to be the number one suspect in most challenging relationships. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those inside our own tribe – truly analyzing and understanding what effects our communication has on others.
It has become fashionable to say that we live in the age of information, but that’s not quite right. In truth, we live in a communication age and it’s time we start taking it seriously. Arguably the distinction between information and communication is becoming increasingly unclear because of their intertwined nature – i.e. knowing about communication vs. knowing how to communicate.
“One cannot not communicate” – or so says Paul Watzlawick in his 5 Axioms of Communications. Because every behavior is a kind of communication, people who are aware of each other are constantly communicating. Any perceivable behavior, including the absence of action, has the potential to be interpreted by other people as having some meaning.
Most of the suggested tips and habits and ways of effectively communicating are presented like bad used-car sales pitches – easy and obvious.
Give Eye Contact!
Think Before You Speak!
No mind reading!
Yep. Ok. Got it.
And yet, most conversations are like a tennis match, with opinions volleyed back and forth until someone wins the point. Communication is a skills-based sport. Just like any sport, skills can be acquired through practice and more practice.
So, what now?
STOP. Stop talking, stop texting, stop tweeting, stop posting – just stop. It may seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that listening is far more persuasive than speaking. Silence is an underestimated source of power. In silence, we can hear not only what is being said but also what is not being said. When respectfully silent, it can be easier to reach the truth. Remember the 80/20 rule. Listening is far more important than talking, so when it comes to family communication, listen four times longer than you speak. And then when it is your turn – it is perfectly acceptable to pause and give yourself a moment to organize, prepare, and present your thoughts in a positive way.
CLARITY. Clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from ambiguity. Sometimes a simple word definition goes a long way. Practicing clarity means cutting through the clutter – pausing long enough to convey your message in as few words as possible. Before initiating any communication, ask, “What am I trying to accomplish?” Clarifying the answer allows you to avoid side issues that might otherwise obscure the original purpose of the interaction.
REPEAT after me. An equally effective way to make sure others understand exactly what you are communicating is to ask them to repeat back their interpretation of what has been said or asked of them. In order to guarantee the results, you need to make sure that your audience can give you a clear explanation of what is being required of them. Did I hear you correctly when you said…blah, blah, blah.
TRUTH. As human beings, we naturally seek a state of cooperation, and cooperation can only be gained in the long run by telling the truth. Although honesty is an excellent virtue, honesty alone can be brutal. A message turns from helpfully honest to brutally blunt when we focus more on the message we are delivering and less on the person we are delivering the message to. Our ability and courage to speak honestly with one another is most certainly at the heart of treating one another with respect. It allows you to honor people as well as your own message.
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
A quotation from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke.
How can that be? Communication seems to be dominating every minute of every day. Poor communication can come in many different forms. Often ineffective, almost always harmful to families. Yelling, silent-treatment, using terms like “always” or “never”, blaming, swearing, name-calling, passive-aggressive statements, keeping and hiding family secrets, using ultimatums or threats. And the list goes on.
What type of communication are we engaged in throughout the day?
- Factual communication enables individuals to fulfill common family functions. For example, telling Susie that she will be picked up from school at a specific time and location.
- Affective communication is the way individual family members share their emotions with one another – sadness, anger, joy, etc. This is the one that requires patience because emotions are rarely conveniently timed.
Communication is more than the simple act of transferring information from one place to another. Well-timed words mean the difference between being hopeful and supportive or judgmental and condescending. Effective communication gives people space for an opinion, leaves room for dialogue, allows for benefit of the doubt, and creates opportunity for engagement.