My Quest to Communicate Effectively
Over the past few years I have realized that effective communication is KEY to having success in both personal and business endeavors. After a handful of failed personal relationship and just as many business snafus, it became clear that I needed to hone my communication skills. The process has been a learning experience, and I am confident that I am not even close to mastering this skill. However, each time I am able to practice what I have learned, I CAN say that I get one step closer to better communicating with the world around me. In my pursuit, I have found four areas of that most of us would do well to improve: listening, non-verbal communication, emotional awareness and management & questioning.
1. Learn to Listen
Communication is a two-way process. I often fall into the trap of ‘broadcasting’, where I issue a message but fail to listen to the response. I half-heartedly listen to others in the conversation, while primarily thinking about what I was planning to say next.
Listening is not the same as hearing. Listening means paying attention to not only the words being spoken but also how they are being spoken and the non-verbal messages associated with them. That means giving full attention to the person speaking and concentrating on what he or she is saying— and, conversely, what they are NOT saying.
2. Study and Understand Non-Verbal Communication
A large portion of any message is communicated non-verbally. Non-verbal communication includes tone & pitch of voice, body movement, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and even physiological changes such as sweating. Better understand people by paying close attention to their non-verbal communication.
3. Emotional Awareness and Management
Become more aware of your own and other people’s emotions — and better manage those emotions.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything should be logical and that emotion has no place. However, we are human and, therefore, messy and emotional. Emotion cannot be separated from communication — nor should we try to do so. An awareness and understanding of emotions, and how to master those emotions, both positive and negative, have improved my ability to effectively communicate with others.
Self-awareness and empathy are two additional areas in which I have learned to focus. Self-awareness consists of emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence. Empathy is the ability to ‘feel with’ others: to share their emotions and understanding those emotions. It includes understanding and developing other human beings, service to others, valuing others and supporting their diversity, and paying attention to and respecting their religious and political views.
4. Questioning Skills
Questioning is crucial to ensure you understand someone’s message correctly. It is also a good way to obtain more information or keep a conversation going. Practicing good questioning skills has allowed me to draw additional information from others and stimulate more in-depth discussion.
I have also learned the importance of ‘transmitting’ a message effectively. Try not to say the first thing that comes into your head. Instead take a moment and pay close attention to what you are about to say and how you are about to say it. Focus on the meaning of what you want to communicate.
Consider how your message might be received by the other person, and tailor the way you communicate to fit your objective to help avoid misunderstandings and conflict . Avoid jargon & over-complicated language, and explain things as simply as possible. Avoid language that may cause offense. After transmitting a message, get in the habit of checking that what you said has been properly understood. Ask the person (or group) to reflect or summarize what they have heard and understood.
Other elements that can affect how a message is both transmitted and received.
Laughing releases endorphins that can help relieve stress and anxiety. Most people like to laugh and feel drawn to somebody who can make them laugh. Don’t be afraid to be funny or clever. Use your sense of humor to break the ice, to lower barriers and gain the affection of others.
Treat People Equally
Avoid being patronizing when communicating. Do not talk about others behind their backs and try not to develop favorites: treat people as your equal and also equal to each other so that greater trust and respect can be built. If confidentiality is an issue, make sure its boundaries are known and ensure it is maintained.
Attempt to Resolve Conflict
Try to resolve problems and conflicts as they arise, rather than letting them fester. Try not to be biased or judgmental but instead ease the way for conflict resolution.
Maintain a Positive Attitude and Smile
Few people want to be around someone who is miserable. Be friendly, upbeat and positive in communication with others. Maintain a positive, cheerful attitude. Stay optimistic and learn from mistakes when things do not go as planned.
If something makes you angry or upset, wait for a few hours and calm down before taking action. If you have something negative to say, do it calmly, try to find some positive aspects to the situation and avoid giving unnecessary criticism.
Other Things To Consider — The ‘Perception Gap’
Perhaps the most significant thing I have learned on this journey is that sometimes all of one’s focusing on more effective communication is simply not enough.
Why? Because the intention set forth can often be misunderstood by the recipient(s).
This gap between what you mean to communicate and what is actually communicated is called ‘Perception Gap’. Perception Gap occurs when the intention you set forth and communicate is misunderstood by your audience. Unfortunately, this happens all the time.
After doing some probing, I have become aware of at least seven different forms of communication: spatial, linguistic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and logical-mathematic. Communicating a step-by-step list would work well with a logical-mathematic communicator, but a conversation of this type will likely be misunderstood by a spatial communicator, who leans heavily on interconnected ideas. Intrapersonal communicators need time & space to digest internally while interpersonal communicators prefer a group discussion.
Every person has a different primary and secondary communication form. No matter how hard you try to employ the above criteria, you will likely run into trouble when your communication style strays far from another’s.
Also, communication often fails because people often don’t see themselves as others see them — there is a disconnect between internal intention & external perception. Becoming an effective communicator requires alignment of internal intention & external perception. You cannot effectively communicate with and influence others when you see yourself one way and others see you another. The greater the gap between internal intention & external perception, the higher your stress, frustration, and ineffectiveness.
Results of a Perception Gap
Lack of good communication is just the beginning. What comes next is the ‘domino effect’, which can be quite significant: small misinterpretations grow into large misunderstandings, which grow into erroneous stories, which ultimately erode trust, credibility and transparency, all of which negatively impact performance and destroy relationships. It is amazing how a simple conversation can have such a negative effect. It is important for people to be aware of how they communicate, specifically in relation to whom they are communicating. Get to know different people’s communication style and aim to communicate in a manner that they are more likely to receive accurately & positively.
Ways to More Effectively Communicate:
- Look for patterns in your miscommunication.
- At the beginning of an interaction, state: ‘My intention is X.’ That way, the receiver can frame how they receive the content within the stated intentions.
- Ask each person you communicate with to help you bridge the gap between intention & perception. Reach out to the recipient(s) in the moment, or soon after the fact and ask, ‘Here’s how I intended that message to be understood…how did you receive it?’ This requires that you are open and ready for the answer to your question. While feedback may trigger an emotional response in you, a self-aware individual will thank the person for the feedback, accept the feedback, ask some clarifying questions & aim to minimize the gap in future interactions. Doing this not only reiterates your intention but also creates a welcoming environment for clarifying questions.
- What could happen if you don’t address the gap? Asking this question will help you look towards the future and importance of the current relationship.
- Clarify the Perception Gap in a compassionate, non-threatening way. It is easy to make the other person ‘wrong’, saying something like, ‘What’s wrong with you that you don’t understand what I’m saying?’ It is important to remember that the person is a human being with life issues that extend outside of their current interaction with you. Approach them with openness and find out where the communication gap occurred. Then listen carefully and address the situation. It is important to be compassionate, and actively non-threatening.
A Lifelong Learning Journey
For most of us, improving our communication skills is an ongoing process. There will likely NEVER come a point at which any of us could say that we have nothing more to learn about communication or that we are ‘experts’. Just because you will never be an expert, does not mean that you should not start the process of self-improvement. Improving your communication skills will almost certainly ease and enhance all your interpersonal relationships, both at home and at work. It is an investment of time that will definitely pay off.