The Art of Proficient Communication
One Cannot Not Communicate.
I wish I’d said that, because it pretty well sums up a key problem with communication. It doesn’t solve anything, but it does provide a starting point. Paul Watzlawick gets credit for it as the most famous of his Five Axioms. Although most of his work was in the field of family therapy and how families communicate, the axiom is applicable to all communication situations. Every behavior is a form of communication, even silence, or perhaps, in some cases, especially silence. Miscommunication happens when people are not on the same page.
Cool note: Watzlawick also wrote Munchausen’s Pigtail and other Essays, which has to be a must-read if only for the intriguing title.
The goal of communication is to give and receive information accurately. That seems pretty straightforward until you start factoring in all the variables. Word choices. Voice. Body language. Previous experiences, which can run the gamut, and are unique to each communicator. As the axiom says, there’s his version, her version, and the truth.
Based on the combination of these variables, the communication can go as planned or it can fly right off the tracks. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we struggle to remember what we originally intended, and how we ended up in such an unexpected place.
The good news is, communication is a skill that can be learned and developed. Granted, it’s at least a two-way street and there’s no guarantee that the other party or parties will respond as desired. But using the right communication skills can greatly increase the chances of a successful outcome.
Start with non-verbal communication. It’s estimated that as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal. In fact our non-verbals can negate our words. Sighs, crossed arms, furrowed brows and eyerolls that practically push the eyeballs into the back of the head are not consistent with pleasant words. Promising trustworthiness while avoiding eye contact sends a contradictory message. Positive words delivered in a flat, monotone voice convey a lack of believable enthusiasm.
“I am excited to tell you about the new changes and opportunities ahead for our company.” Depending on the delivery, you may want to start thinking about dusting off your resume.
Tone of voice is another key factor. “Fine” can mean many different things. When the “F” is highly exaggerated and the rest of the word is spit out, the person is anything but fine. Woe to you who misreads that message! Other voice factors include volume, speed, variety and clarity.
Make sure your words and your non-verbals match to ensure that the message you intend is the message that is received. Positive non-verbals include smiling, making eye contact, shaking hands, an open and approachable demeanor and maintaining attention and focus. Just don’t overdo the smiling and eye contact and weird people out!
Words, of course, matter. Negative words trigger negative emotions. Very little effective communication occurs when emotions take over. Imagine that constructive communication happens when the emotional level is at or near zero. The first person starts off with, “YOU people always screw things up!” The responder, hearing the word “you”, takes it personally and reacts defensively, joining the first communicator at Emotional Level Ten. “Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!” The actual problem and potential solution get lost in the weeds.
TIP: Telling someone to “calm down” has never actually calmed anyone down, in the history of ever.
Word choices start with intent. If you intend to have a positive communication and want to help reach a mutually agreeable outcome, make sure your words support that. You” can be perceived as accusatory and confrontational. Replace negative, judgmental words like “should, never, always, must, no, bad, wrong, can’t and won’t” with phrases like, “To resolve this, I need…here’s how I can help…let me see how I can make this work…what I can do is…I can get this to you by Friday.” You can’t always say yes, but if you approach a situation with a clear desire to be as helpful as you are able, you’ll end with much better outcome.
Above all, a good communicator is a good listener. Listen with the intent to understand, not to reply. Not feeling heard is one of our greatest frustrations. Many people with customer service complaints state that they were not looking so much for a specific resolution as they were to be heard and understood. Maybe the right reply sometimes is simply, “I heard you and I’m sorry.”
Too many people think good communication skills are something that some people are just born with. While two people may be born with a talent for music, the one who nurtures it through training and practice is far more likely to become successful. Developing your communication skills will help you become a more effective communicator.