Everyone Fails at Great Communication. How Can You Fail Less?
Therapists are so good at getting us to talk in a productive manner. How can we do that in our day-to-day?
Communication is everything. As an aspiring product manager, communication is one of the top skills that I need to learn. Luckily, from studying Cognitive and Brain Sciences and working in healthcare in college, I have learned about effective communication that invites conversation instead of accumulates conflict. Here are the things that I try to be intentional about when I speak with others:
watch your thinking
It can be easy to jump from making a conclusion about a situation to making a conclusion about a person. However, it is important to assume that you’re wrong. Follow the example of the judicial system and go in believing innocent until proven guilty. Ask questions to determine if there was a miscommunication, something you misinterpreted about the situation, or there is background information that you lack. We’ve all been in a situation where we got upset with someone thinking they had intentionally done something that hurt us only to realize that they didn’t know that they were doing it, had a lot of their own things going on at the time that had nothing to do with us, or never even did what we may have been accusing them of in the first place!
“You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” — Philosophy Professor Daniel Dennett
By taking the time to unravel the other person’s experience of the situation, you can go into the conversation with a clear picture of what to confront from a less emotionally-led standpoint. If you do continue with addressing that person, remember to attack the issue, not the person. It is not you vs them, it’s y’all together vs the problem. If you go into a conversation believing that the two (or however many) of you will make it out on the other side of the problem in a mutually beneficial way, your mindset will steer the discussion in a much more productive way than seeing it as a battle where there is a winner and a loser or a completely right side and a completely wrong side.
watch your words
My classmate, Lili, said that feelings aren’t facts. There is a difference between saying “You never listen to me” and “I feel as if you never listen to me.” Although all feelings are valid, all facts are not. You may end up in a situation where someone can be criticizing the truth of your facts only to feel like they’re invalidating the way that you feel which can be a painful experience. Even if you were mistaken, you still experienced an event in a certain way. Just be careful to make it clear that you are speaking on your experience through the use of I statements rather than assuming universal truths.
watch your voice
The same exact sentence can be said at different volumes, speeds, and tones to express a different intention. “I love you.” =/= “I loooovvvveeeee youuuu.” =/= “I LOVE YOU!” =/= “I love you.” =/= “I love you.” =/= “I love you.” and so on. You may be so zoomed in on the content of your message that you don’t realize how it comes across. To you, you’re making a sarcastic joke; but to the listener, you’re completely serious. To you, you’re just speaking; but to the listener, you’re yelling at them.
watch your body
I’ve gotten better on not letting my thoughts jump out through my body. What I mean by that is not rolling my eyes in disbelief, or tapping my foot in impatience, or balling my fist like that Arthur meme in anger. Similarly to watching your voice, you may forget that a majority of communication is nonverbal. Go beyond thinking that you’re listening or saying “I’m listening” and also demonstrate that you’re listening as a fully attentive listener: put your phone down, make eye contact, face the person speaking, and lean in or tilt your head if you feel so compelled.
Keep in mind that even if you do everything in your power to be a great communicator, some people just won’t reciprocate. Have the wisdom to know when it is no longer worth your time on this issue or even with this person as a whole. Communication is a skill and any skill takes practice. Take constructive feedback with grace and keep improving with new people, new situations, and new strategies.