October 10th, 2018
"Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair trigger balances, when a false or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act." ~James Thurber
I’ve been a student of communication style and human interaction for most of my life. I remember being labeled “shy” as a kid—reticent to interact with people I didn’t know well. But I also know, because I remember it clearly, that I watched and listened. A lot. It felt important that I understood context in observing people. To get a handle on both what they were saying and what they weren’t saying.
And those observations led to lots of questions, much to my parents’ frustration, I’m sure.
With that personal disclosure at the forefront, here are some ways to improve your own communication regardless of what your long-term style might be.
1-Listen to understand, not respond. This changes everything. Because of our hyper-connectivity, we’ve closed the gap on the pause. We’re bouncing info and words back and forth at a pace the world has never experienced before, which naturally leads to both miscommunication and confusion. Rather than really listening to what someone is saying, we’re busy waiting for the moment that we get to speak—which also means we’re not really understanding what the other person is communicating. Pay attention to this the next time you’re in conversation with someone and you’ll feel what I mean. It takes concerted effort and lots of practice to be an excellent listener, but it’s well worth the practice.
2-Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions about what’s being said because we’re all wired to be more vigilant about negativity than positivity. If you’re not sure, ask clarifying questions. Be the kind of person that seeks clarity at all times and in all ways. We’re all worried about looking stupid, so just let that go. I learned as a working reporter that people would much rather you ask that “stupid question” rolling around in your head than have you assume something and be wrong about it.
3-Seek commonality, not difference. The sages have said this for years—as humans, there’s more that binds us than separates us. Find that connection point and watch how much clearer and more authentic your interactions become.
4-Release the desire to perseverate on things. Some of the loudest places I’ve ever been are in my own head and much of what rolls around in there is, frankly, useless and pointless. Get real with this about yourself. Ruminating on things is a human tendency but the output is rarely helpful. Some things are just that—things, circumstances, events. You don’t need to analyze them in gory, repetitive detail. Put another way, “let it go.” Observe, learn, process and move on.
5-It’s never personal. People get into patterns of behavior. They communicate certain ways because those ways have paid off somehow in the past. If a person’s style of communication irks you, know that that style has worked out for them in some fashion. It’s not directly related to you and the shared circumstance you’re in. It’s not personal, so don’t make it so. Once you make it personal, you’ve created a blockade between you and that other person and you will seek evidence in the future to support your position/feelings and…on and on it goes. Get off that train now because the destination is less than fun. Always.
6-Be consistent. It’s my belief that there’s nothing more reassuring than someone who is consistent. I get that this takes a large degree of control and tact to make this your style, but the payoff is huge. Think about the people that you interact with regularly. Think about the ones that are consistent in style, form and manner and then think about the ones that make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You’re overly diligent about not triggering them so there’s always some degree of inauthenticity in your communication with them.
With a little work, anyone can be consistent but a key ingredient is slowing things down. Asking for time when you need to consider something. And really being aware of how you’re occurring to other people. Not self-conscious, but self-aware. Aware of not just yourself and your actions, but also how others typically interact and react to you.
Sidenote: If your own tendency is to be the second of the two styles I described above and it’s something you’ve decided to work on, here are some questions to ask yourself: What is your payoff in creating and recreating that type of interaction? Why do you want people you’re in relationship with off balance? Do you feel more “in control” when others are unsteady? Why? Does it empower you in some way? Not judging, just asking. Once you understand something about yourself fully, you’re better able to own it and then change it.
Put some of these ideas to work, and I’d encourage you to spend more time just observing—without judgement—the interactions of your daily life—your own included. Trust your senses about what you’re seeing and feeling—those abilities are there to help you but must be utilized to affect any understanding and perhaps, if you choose, change.
If you think you could use some help on this, I am happy to assist. And when you try out some of these tips, please let me know how they worked out.
Let’s keep the conversation going, shall we?
personal development and Equus coach, former Penn State journalism instructor and professional writer.