Communication is puzzling to me. Everyone communicates differently in every situation. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to communication, so it can be an intimidating subject to tackle.
Even a fantastic communicator can run into communication difficulties when the person with whom they are communicating can’t understand. Can one really learn how to communicate effectively?
I think so. But, I don’t think it’s a subject that you can ever classify as ‘learned’. I think that we learn how to communicate throughout our entire lives. I think that our knowledge of effective communication is always changing- if we let it.
So, in today’s post I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned about communicating effectively with the people around me. I’ll share some of the experiences that have led me to believe that I’m qualified to write about communication, and you can hopefully learn something from my flops.
As soon as I graduated from college I started a job as a residential coach at a boarding school for teenagers on the autism spectrum. Most of the teenagers were either diagnosed with high functioning autism, or Asperger’s syndrome (a diagnosis that no longer exists after the publication to the DSM-5).
My job was to help the students live life outside of the classroom. The most unexpected part of guiding them through their day to day lives was practicing communication with them. I’d had no clue that relationships required so much communication until it was my job to watch other people relate to one another!
That boarding school is where I learned that no two people are alike when it comes to communication. We all send different messages with our words, our bodies, and our overall demeanors. We all receive sent messages differently, too. So how are we even functioning as a society?! How are we not all exhausted from trying to send and receive the right messages? (I kinda am, but that might have something to do with the fact that most of my conversations involve people under the age of four 😂.)
The first lesson I learned about effective communication was to LISTEN. My students taught me that listening and paying attention to social cues is the MOST important part of communication.
Before I started that job I thought I was an excellent communicator. In fact, I was often complemented on my communication skills. But I wasn’t good at it at all. I was far more concerned about what came out of my mouth than I was about listening.
I’d argue that communication is an activity that always involves more than one person, and if you’re not paying attention to the other person (or group of people), you’re doing it wrong.
So, what does listening look like? For me, it has taken on several different forms. I listen with my ears, my eyes, and my intuition (this one is a little wonky, but hopefully it’ll be clearer soon).
Listening with your ears is the ‘easy’ one. You just stay quiet and focused (the hard part if you’re like me and interrupt people non-stop because your thoughts are running a mile a minute) while the other person is talking. You use active listening skills while they’re talking, and when they’re finished talking you seek clarification before continuing with your point (a very important part of listening is making sure that you understand. I think that this is likely the biggest piece that is missing from most non effective communication.)
Listening with your eyes sounds silly, but our visual imput is a huge part of how we interpret what we’re receiving through our ears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been listening with my ears, but looking at something completely outside of the conversation, and missed a huge chunk of the message.
The ability to both hear and see the person with whom you are communicating is a huge gift! Visual cues can give us a wealth of information.
In the very beginning of our marriage my husband and I were talking about some issue that I knew was going to lead to a fight. I was avoiding eye contact at all costs because I felt like I was going to cry (this happened a lot when my husband and I were first learning to communicate effectively with each other). I finally looked up at him when the tone in his voice changed. His face was sad, but I thought he sounded angry. It turns out that I’d completely misinterpreted the information that he was giving me because I wasn’t paying attention to all of the information!
Listening with your intuition seems a little too intense, but all I mean is to listen to your instincts. I think that some of this comes with time and closeness to the person with whom you are communicating, but not all of it. For example- you walk into a convenience store and the clerk at the counter is acting completely normal. He takes your debit card, swipes it, tells you to have a nice day, and you leave. You get in your car and you just feel like something wasn’t right. You start to head back inside when you notice a man crouched under the counter with a gun and an open pillow case. The clerk is filling the bag with the contents of the register. You call 911. Are you psychic?! No. You just used your instincts to read the situation.
This is a super extreme example, but I used it to illustrate my point because, in this situation, there was no obvious auditory or visual message being sent. There were likely small auditory and visual stimuli that contributed to your instinct that something was wrong, but it wasn’t as obvious as seeing the gunman yourself or hearing the clerk scream for help. You listened to your own intuition more than you listened to the situation, and that can be a very helpful part of communication!
So, to me, the most important part of communication is listening. I think the second most important part of effective communication is to think before you speak, and I am horrible at this!
Once you’ve listened you’re tasked with responding. I’m sure there is someone out there who is just perfect at this… They probably take a long pause before sharing a well planned thought. I am not this person.
My instinct is to jump right in as soon as the other person finished talking. Awkward silences are, after all, awkward! No one wants to stand there and stare at me as I figure out what to say next! Or do they?
Marriage has taught me that I’d much rather wait for an appropriate response from my husband than receive an immediate response that may be hurtful or incorrect. My husband is good at thinking before he speaks, but when pushed he has occasionally responded on my timeline. I can assure you that his thought out responses are a much truer representation of how he really feels. Be patient with the people with whom you are communicating! Be patient with yourself! It’s not a race, it’s a journey.
Patience is definitely not my strong suit. I’m still working on thinking before I speak (especially when it comes to communicating with my husband and our boys), but I have gotten much better at it over the years.
These are just a couple of the things that I’ve learned about communicating effectively. If this is helpful or informative to anyone I’ll share more of my thoughts later.
I think it’s important to remember that effective communication is never going to happen all of the time. You can be an excellent communicator and still be able to misunderstand or be misunderstood. Hopefully you will never consider yourself perfect at communicating. Hopefully you will always be open to learning!
Thanks for reading. Be kind to yourself and others!