Communication is a vital part of our lives: a typical day involves many interactions between ourselves, our work colleagues and clients, our children, our friends, our ex's, future relationships, etc. This interaction takes place where we live, work, relax, socialize and wherever we perform routine tasks.
Communication skills are critical for building healthy relationships, especially when one realizes that one of the most common causes of relational breakdown is a lack of communication. Just as communication can be the most important part of a relationship; arguments can be the most destructive aspect - the closer we are to someone, the more easily we can bruise or be bruised. There is very little truth in the saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me." It's not what we say, but rather how we say it, that most often hurts another person.
Do you identify with any of these statements?
"He never listens to me when I talk!"
"She talks and talks, but never actually says anything!"
"It's like talking to a brick wall"
"I can't get through to you"
"We can't talk about anything important without getting into a fight"
"She's too emotional - she's either crying or shouting or complaining. It's easier to avoid her"
"He always gets defensive when I try to talk about issues"
Communication is a complex process; of which speaking only makes up for 10-20%. The other 80-90% is made up by facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc. (See our body language section)
Communication is the art/ science of transferring a thought/ idea/ information from the mind of one complex human being to the mind of one or more complex human being(s). For communication to be effective, it must be a two-way process.
Dynamics of Interpersonal Communication
1. Facts: are both people communicating about the same set of facts? Try to separate the facts from thoughts or feelings.
2. Interpretations, Thoughts or Perceptions: Each person interprets a fact differently based on their belief system, personality, values and experience.
3. Feelings: how we are feeling, our current mood and frame of mind, etc can sub-consciously affect decisions and thoughts.
4. Intentions, Needs or Wants: hidden agendas; are we looking for comfort, clarification, information or simply a chance to interact? We judge ourselves on our intentions.
5. Actions: choice of words (is the intent to create harm?) + tone of voice + non-verbal speech = body language, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.
"The medium is the message" => the way the message is delivered is the message itself.
6. Self: The communication centre, which includes the issue, topic or conflict at hand, has been "filtered" by the facts, interpretations, thoughts, feelings, intentions, and choices of behaviour / actions.
Listening and Feedback
Did I say what I meant to say? - Invite feedback to clarify communication.
Someone who's not listening lets their mind drift and is already preparing the next argument or opposing thought; inaccurate feedback or limited eye contact.
Listening is an active, not a passive process. When two people argue, they only hear "what they want to hear", not what's actually said. This equates to the accusation of "not listening". Most couples start arguing and within 5 minutes are arguing about the way they are arguing.
Don't argue when you're angry - you will not be able to listen objectively. Give yourself time to cool down and then broach the subject when you are in a more reasonable frame of mind.
It's important to give feedback - checking and confirming. Did I understand you correctly? Is this what you mean? I heard you say this: am I right? Feedback can be verbal / non-verbal e.g. a nod, smile, silence or a cold shoulder. No feedback is in itself a form of feedback.
If the words and actions contradict each other, it is better to believe the actions!
Conflict resolution can either be Constructive or Destructive.
Destructive Style - hinders or inhibits the conflict resolution process:
- Confrontational (win or lose, blaming)
- Sabotage (focus on weak points, shaming)
- Manipulation (blackmail, withdrawal)
- Giving in (passive, submissive)
- Avoidance (denial, withdrawal)
Constructive Style – trying to minimize the issues and avoiding the difficulties in resolving the problems:
- Compromise (meet halfway, understanding)
- Accommodate (open discussion, communication without confrontation)
- Partnership (solutions, forgiveness, honesty)
When trying to resolve conflicts, try to clarify your goals, as you will probably share many of the same goals despite of your differences. Avoid bargaining, as this may lead to each party taking a rigid position which in turn can flare tempers.
When resolving conflicts, remember that their causes may run deep. Sweeping issues under the carpet isn’t going to work in the long term, as old baggage will be brought up each time an argument starts. Try to fully resolve each issue as it comes along. You may find the following method useful:
1. Ask the other person for their feelings. Your conflict probably isn’t about the issue that caused it to start in the first place. Don’t forget that your goal is sorting out the problem, not winning an argument!
2. Ask the other person to define the problem. Stick to solving one problem at a time, that way you can understand each problem as the other person sees it.
3. Express your own feelings. Be careful to word them carefully, for example use phrases such as “I feel…” rather than “I think you…”
4. Define the problem as you see it. As your feelings come out, the solution may become clearer. Remember that by you listening to the other person; you will have set the tone for them to listen to you.
5. Create multiple solutions. Don’t go back to your original agenda. Aim to find alternative or creative solutions that reduce emotions and tension.
6. Rate the possible solutions. Remember that no one can force an unacceptable solution on the other.
7. Combine and create a mutually acceptable solution. Create something acceptable to both parties, if this doesn’t work – go back to step 1 and ensure both parties are being totally honest.
8. Be sure both parties agree to work towards resolving the issue.
Troubleshooting For Problems in Communication
Control or Power Issues: Effective communication cannot take place if one person has "control" over the other or where there is not mutual respect and equality of relationship. To stay in control leads to relational isolation as the underdog reacts in anger at being manipulated or belittled.
Triangulation: Do not bring in a third party to avoid direct confrontation. If you have a problem with someone, go directly to that person. Don't dump your accusations on mutual friends or your children in the hope of winning support to balance the scales in your favour - it leads to more substantial and long-lasting damage, especially when a child is used as a weapon between parents.
19 Steps to Effective Communication
1. See communication as an opportunity to praise, build-up, affirm, heal, support and give positive reinforcement, rather than to correct, criticise, tear down, hurt, wound, lash out at. Praise opens doors to further communication, while criticism shuts them down.
2. Remember that actions speak louder than words; non-verbal communication usually is more powerful than verbal communication. Avoid double messages in which the verbal and the non-verbal messages convey something contradictory. (Credibility gap)
3. Define what is important and stress it; define what is unimportant and de-emphasise or ignore it. Avoid fault-finding.
4. Communicate in ways that show respect for the other person’s worth as a human being. “Avoid statements which begin with the words “You never …” or “I think you …”.
5. Be clear and specific in your communication. Avoid vagueness.
6. Be realistic and reasonable in your statements. Avoid exaggeration and sentences which begin with “You always …”
7. Test all your assumptions verbally by asking if they are accurate. Avoid acting until this is done.
8. Recognize that each event can be seen from different points of view. Avoid assuming that other people see things like you do. (Perception)
9. Recognize that your family members and close friends are experts on you and your behaviour. Avoid the tendency to deny their observations about you – especially if you are not sure.
10. Recognize that disagreement can be a meaningful form of communication. Avoid destructive arguments.
11. Be honest and open about your feelings and viewpoints. Bring up all significant problems even if you are afraid that doing so will disturb another person. Speak the truth in love. Avoid sullen silences.
12. Do not put down and/or manipulate the other person with tactics such as ridicule, interrupting, name-calling, changing the subject, blaming, bugging, sarcasm, criticism, pouting, guilt-inducing, etc. Avoid the one-upmanship game.
13. Be more concerned about how your communication affects others than about what you intended. Avoid getting bitter if you are misunderstood.
14. Accept all feelings and try to understand why others feel and act as they do. Avoid the tendency to say, “you shouldn’t feel like that.”
15. Be tactful considerate and courteous. Avoid taking advantage of the other person’s feelings.
16. Ask questions and listen carefully. Avoid preaching or lecturing.
17. Do not use excuses. Avoid falling for the excuses of others.
18. Speak kindly politely and softly. Avoid nagging yelling or whining.
19. Recognize the value of humour and seriousness. Avoid destructive teasing.
As you look ahead to new relationships, you need to be able to break old and faulty communication patterns to allow for healthier interaction. The use of praise and positive reinforcement will reconstruct wounded and broken self-images and will build self-esteem, particularly in children. By becoming an effective communicator, you will also grow and become a better person which will positively enhance all your relationships.