One thing I know for sure about communication is that it is always happening, whether or not we are aware of what and how we are communicating. All human interaction involves communication; it is the foundation of all relationships. Webster’s dictionary defines the term “communication” as “a transmitting or a giving, or giving and receiving, of information, signals, or messages by talk, gesture, writing, etc.” It also states that communication implies being “connected.” (Webster p. 296)
The Evolution of Communication
So what is communication, and why is it such a big deal? And why is it the basis for all relationships? The fact is, we do not live in a vacuum. We are socially embedded beings that frankly don’t do very well living in isolation. Millions of years ago, when our social structure was less complex, we were able to function with a far less complicated system of language. “Honey, did you bring home supper?” did not even have to be spoken. Either dad walked into the cave with some meat or he didn’t. People were also free of more complex negotiations, such as whether to have Chinese, Vietnamese, or pizza for dinner, depending on the mood of various family members, and scheduling conflicts between hockey, ballet, or choir practice. Various tones of grunting sufficed.
As the complexity of our social environment increased, we became more entangled with one another, and the need for more sophisticated levels of communication fueled an ongoing evolution in our day-to-day interactions. Pushing and grunting have been left to the caveman, and we find ourselves increasingly challenged to find ways to best express our needs, wants, and desires.
The Role of Communication
Effective communication: communication that keeps us connected becomes the very basis of healthy primary relationships. And being in close and intimate relationships has been shown time and again to specifically contribute to healthier and longer lives. Those of us who live in loving relationships experience better overall health and life satisfaction than those of us who do not. This would seem to be motivation enough for searching out the most effective communication skills to best connect with our partners.
Making Our Communication Effective
What is effective communication? What determines the distinction between effective and ineffective communication? What does effective communication look, sound, and feel like? And what gets in the way of effective communication between partners?
The goal of our communication-conscious or unconscious-affects the way our message is conveyed. For example, do we seek resolution of an issue or do we want to prove a point? Do we aim to push another person away or bring them closer to us? Are we being honest with ourselves about our own agendas in pursuing a specific dialogue? Do we ever lose the intended message of the communication by means of our delivery?
Communication takes place on many different levels. We have the obvious: the actual words that we use. Are we using nice words, mean words, compassionate or cold words? How do we know if our words are hurtful or supportive, hateful or loving? Are we using words that the listener can understand? Do our words heal or wound? Do they accurately describe the event, thought, or feeling that we wish to convey?
Other aspects of communication may not be quite as obvious. It has surprised many of my clients to learn that non-verbal aspects of communication actually contribute a great deal of the whole message being conveyed. Ideally, most of us routinely conduct self-reflection and assessment of ourselves in relationships. We might ask ourselves, for example, about the
- tone and inflection of our voice. Is our tone assertive, hostile, agitated, or calm?
- De we exude sarcasm?
- Are we speaking more loudly than we realize, or so softly that our partner must strain to hear us?
- Is there an intimidating tone to our voice, or are we looking to soothe with gentleness?
- Are we mumbling nasty comments and digs under our breath, or speaking our position clearly and assertively?
- Do we use words that have private significance, words that someone else might not think twice about using, but that have hidden meaning to that particular recipient? Do these words have an impact of increased intimacy with, or power over our partner?
Communicating With Our Eyes
Eye contact is something to which I always pay close attention when in conversation with anyone. Is this person looking me in the eye, or are their eyes wandering around the room? Is that individual truly interested in what I have to say, or are they looking for someone or something more interesting? Are they looking at the floor, out the window, watching television, or reading the paper while I am speaking to them? Are they looking at body parts other than my eyes? How do I know I have their attention if they are not looking into my face? Just try speaking to someone’s back and see how engaged or important you feel to that person. Eyes also speak to us. They have a language all their own. They can speak softly or glaringly. They can roll as they express non-verbal sarcasm. They can steam with the wrath of God, or they can well up with tears of compassion. They can scrunch up with confusion, and they can open wide with shock or wonder. They can peer at another with curiosity or glare at them with disdain. What are your eyes saying when accompanying your words?
“Mirroring,” or Facial Expressions
Wikipedia defines mirroring as “a human behaviour in which one copies a person while communicating with them. It is often observed among couples or close friends. It may include miming gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, tempo, accent, attitude, choice of words, metaphors, or other features discernible in communication. Mirroring is a common phenomenon in conversation. The listeners will typically smile or frown along with the speaker. This is essentially the theory of congruency, which is defined, again by Wikipedia as, “rapport within oneself, or internal and external consistency, perceived by others as sincerity or certainty. An alternative definition of congruence in the work of Virginia Satir is …the balance between self, other and context”.
So when, for example, an infant cries out, we respond with a look of concern, versus laughter or disgust. When our children are hurting, our facial expressions may signal empathy, disdain, indifference, impatience, or a multitude of other reactions to their feelings. This is how they learn, long before language is acquired, that their feelings matter and are taken seriously (or not). And this phenomenon actually continues for the rest of our lives.
So I might ask myself, what are my facial expressions conveying? Do they mirror my feelings or the feelings being expressed by another? Am I feeling angry while a smile resides on my face? Am I overreacting with an excessive grimace or exclamation to a relatively inconsequential event being told to me? Am I smirking? Am I laughing while my partner is expressing sadness or distress to me? Am I indifferent, or am I attempting to understand the feelings our partner is conveying? Do I attempt to show no emotion with my face in an effort to hide from my partner? All of these situations can serve to shut down any attempt to connect with us with another person. We must ask ourselves what our faces are actually communicating, and do those expressions support, enhance or contradictour verbal (intended) message.
Body Language and Movement
Unbeknownst to many of us, body language speaks volumes. We might ask ourselves,
- What is my body doing? What is it saying?
- Is my body turned toward my listener, or is my listener facing my backside (or my newspaper)?
- Are my hands reaching out to smack someone, or are they reaching out to comfort them with an affectionate hug?
- Am I saying loving words and accompanying them with a gruff or groping touch?
- Is my body stiff and tense, or relaxed?
- Am I walking away while my partner is still talking?
- Am I chasing after my partner as they seek a moment of reflection?
- Are my arms crossed in front of me or relaxed to my sides?
- What is my body posture and what does this actually convey?
The Role and Impact of Silence
Silence is yet another literally non-verbal form of expression. Here, the context is everything. Silence can be incredibly cold and hurtful. When we are reaching out to share ourselves, and our partner responds with silence, the message conveyed by that silence can be deafening. Our requests go unanswered, pain goes unacknowledged, our successes are not noticed. Over time, we simply feel invisible. On the other hand, sometimes silence is all that is needed, and words just muddle things up. A compassionate ear, a silent reflection, a time of just being together with no words can speak volumes of comfort and warmth. We must ask ourselves what the impact is that we create with our silence?
When taking communication into account, we must always try to be cognizant of cultural considerations. The meaning of eye contact, the tone of our voice, the inflections we use and other non-verbal forms of communication vary significantly from one culture to another. What conveys concern and interest to one group may signal a threat, hostility or disrespect in another. These issues are important to consider at greater length than the scope of this book.
I am sure you can come up with a few ideas that I’ve missed here. The bottom line is that the confluence of these factors creates the atmosphere of the communication, which determines the very essence of our communication. We are “inducted” or drawn into the communication by this essence. This total essence is a much larger whole than the mere words we use. So, for example, we may say the simplest of comments, such as, “Good morning,” or “thank-you,” and depending our tone, inflection, facial expression, or our body language, this can be construed as anything from a sincere expression of appreciation, to a sarcastic, cutting expression of hostility or aggression. The true meaning of the comment depends, in large measure, on how we choose to deliver the message and what emotional impact we create, whether or not we are aware that we are choosing this.
In the old days, professionals told us that the impact of what we said to others was not our problem, but was the problem of the recipient. So, if I were to ask you, “How do you think she feels about what you just said?” you might well have said, “Well, how the heck should I know? How she chooses to respond is her business. I’m just telling it like it is.” These days, however, we realize that though the receiver certainly has a responsibility to attempt to understand what the sender is attempting to communicate (and not necessarily get stuck in specific semantics), as senders, we are in fact responsible for how we communicate and to a large extent, for the impact that our communication has on others. So each partner has a role in determining what occurs in a given interaction. Does our communication serve to bring the other person closer to us or to push them away? Someone once said to me that toxic communication can be more powerful than being physically burned because the communication becomes “burned” into our brains. It is sage advice for us all to remember.
In addition to being responsible for how we offer up our communications to others, we are also responsible to how we receive the attempts of others to communicate with us; actually listening to what is being said. At first glance, listening seems to be such a simple thing. We first notice what listening is not. It is not talking. It is about being quiet, which leads many of us to believe that listening is a passive activity. You talk; and I try not to interrupt while waiting for you to stop talking. Simple enough. I do my best to give you an opportunity to get all your words out-or at least most of your words out before I get a turn. An occasional, “Uh Huh,” or “You don’t say,” could be sprinkled about for good measure to let your partner know you are paying attention. A little nodding and eye contact would also be a nice added feature here.
So the question becomes, is listening just an exercise in hearing another’s words or is it something more? Why do, I hear so often in my office, “You just don’t listen to me!” Many times, when our partner says this, it is because we are not in agreement with them. (If, after all, I had been listening, I would most certainly agree with their position.) But listening is about so much more than merely not talking when someone is speaking. Admittedly it is a good start, for if we are talking or interrupting, we certainly are not listening. But there are other times when we are quiet, and yet the speaker’s message is simply not sinking in. So how do you know whether or not I am paying attention when you are trying to get a point across? Well, there are actually some pretty good clues we can look for.
Indications That We Are Paying Attention
- Do we have eye contact (or am I watching television or reading the mail)?
- Is my face mirroring your message in a way appropriate to the matter at hand? (Am I laughing as you relate how your boss slammed you this morning? Am I quiet or look bored as you enthusiastically share a triumph?)
- Do I remember our conversation the next day, or even late that same day?
- Am I asking questions to better help me understand you?
- Am I really listening or am I waiting for you to hurry up and stop talking so I can get back to the game, or have my turn to talk?
- Do I feel connected to you during the discussion?
Webster defines listening as, “making a conscious effort to hear; to attend closely; to give heed.” (Webster p. 855) Turns out that listening is actually hard work, and requires attentiveness and energy. Listening is far more than hearing a bunch of noise coming at us; it is about truly trying to actually understand what the other person is trying to convey (even if they convey their message ineptly). So we first must ask ourselves, do we even want to hear what the other person has to say? Are we willing to hear them and how they may be so very different from ourselves? Listening is not about being quiet on the outside and busy with our own thoughts on the inside, waiting for the first chance to have our turn to outmaneuver our partner. It is really an opportunity for us each to get out of our own heads and work to understand the situation, whatever that might be, from our partner’s point of view. Of course, this implies that we are in a relationship with someone whose thoughts are of interest to us….
Are we truly interested in and willing to be genuinely attentive to this individual with their particular problem at this particular moment in time? After all, we cannot expect to be on-call for listening 24/7. If, in fact we are distracted with issues of our own at the moment that someone wishes to speak with us, we must be honest, and tell them we cannot genuinely give them our full attention at that moment. That is a far more respectful response than pretending to listen (and hopefully doing a decent job) while our mind is elsewhere! Of course, we must then commit to listening later, and follow through with that commitment.
We must be willing to see our partner as someone separate from ourselves; a unique individual who has his or her own life, thoughts, feelings, and identity. We will not see the world and our problems from the same perspective all the time. This does not mean that we are not in a loving relationship. This is simply reality. And it means that we must genuinely be able to accept our partner’s feelings, whatever they may be, or however different they may be from our own, or from those we think they should be having. This can be an especially difficult step for many of us, but it is crucial to realize that even in the best of relationships, we are two distinct individuals, with two distinct ways of seeing and experiencing the world. The best of relationships are not made from two distinct individuals who have meshed into one single being, but from the richness that our combined uniqueness brings.
We must each maintain ultimate responsibility to manage out own problems. This therefore allows us to have a deep trust in our partner’s ability to handle their own feelings, to work through them, and to find their own solutions to their problems. This is a tough situation, and for many reasons. When one of our friends or our partner comes to us with a problem, we naturally want so much to come up with ideas about how to fix their predicament. To just listen, and to trust them to find their own solutions often feels remiss-as though we are not being helpful. We can feel so inadequate. But unless someone specifically asks for our advice, this may well be the last thing they are looking for.
Let me offer you an illumination from my own life. If you have had children, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. I swear, my children had a habit of getting hurt only when I was busy doing something else. I might have been cooking dinner, cleaning something very important, chatting with a friend on the phone, paying the bills--I was BUSY. The times that they came screaming to me with their “boo boos” were nearly always inconvenient-they had an almost eerie knack for coming to me at “precisely the wrong time.” What I eventually discovered was that the times that I tried to shrug them off, or told them to be big girls or to act their age, the screaming or pouting seemed to accelerate. If, on the other hand, I stopped what I was doing for even the briefest of moments, bent down and gave them a hug, kissed their boo boo and maybe (not always) put a bandage on it, they were off and playing in a flash.
So what had I done? I certainly did not make it all better. A kiss and a hug did not heal the scraped knee or elbow. The physical pain pf the injury was still there, the emotional pain from the mean remark made by some kid down the block was still there. The only difference was that I listened to them; I understood how badly they felt, I acknowledged that their experience was real and true for them, and I comforted them.
The exact same process is true for us as adults. When our partner comes to us in pain, they are most likely not looking for solutions, but a listening heart, validation, and acknowledgement of our experience. Our personal feelings of inadequacy for not being able to help solve the problem is our problem to cope with, not theirs. So when our partner comes home complaining about their mean boss, telling them, “Well quit the stupid job then,” is not especially helpful. Try just listening to their experience and notice how helpless you feel, how inadequate, and then remember that listening-true listening-is one of the most healing gifts we can give-and it’s easier than you think!
The Nature of Emotions
Lastly, try to remember that emotions are not permanent, and they can shift with the winds. Multitudes of factors contribute to today’s mood, or even our mood of the hour. How much sleep have we had? Have we eaten recently and consequently what are our blood sugar levels? Who might have crossed us on the freeway or at work? Is it a bad hair day? Did our boss make our day a misery, or did our kids drive us crazy that morning? It is important always to take into account our own mood as well as the mood of our partner. Tomorrow is always a new day.
Practicing Our Listening Skills
So how does one actually engage in active listening? There are several helpful guidelines in this process that we may not learn in school, but that are so valuable when we are truly attempting to communicate with one another. It is helpful, for example, to make sure we understand what our partner has said by relating back to them what we think we heard them say. Jill said to her husband, Kevin, that it didn’t matter what he actually said to her; what mattered was what she heard him say and how she took it. I respectfully disagree. Even when our partner attempts to be respectful and clear, we may still misinterpret his or her meaning. If we find ourselves misinterpreting our partner more often than not, we must ask ourselves what the basis is for this ongoing misinterpretation. Is our partner tucking ill intent inside a sugarcoated sword, or are we ourselves looking for some ill-intended hidden message where none exists? The question that Jill must ask herself is whether she is truly interested in knowing what her husband is struggling to express, or is she more interested in her own perspectives and experiences? He may stumble about and not say things exactly the way Jill would prefer to hear them, but he is trying his best to share a concern or a dilemma with her. She can choose to argue about semantics or the precise words he uses, or she can try to understand what exactly he is concerned about. Jill may never stop blaming Kevin for intentions that he does not have. He might consider ceasing his self-defense to her. And he may have to find a way to agree to disagree with Jill and to begin to listen to his own voice. Relating back to our partners what we think we hear them telling us is a crucial first step to take before we actually react to the communication. Some ways to insure that we have heard what the speaker is saying correctly might be to ask, “Are you saying that…” or say, “What I think I heard you say is…” or, “It sounds like you feel….” This way, if we are off the mark, the speaker has an opportunity to clarify him or herself before things blow out of proportion.
Another guideline consider is that it may be less helpful to respond to a message spoken to us by sending back a message of our own, such as evaluating, giving our opinion, using logic, analyzing, solving, or questioning. These responses can feel like more of a judgment than an attempt to listen and understand our partner. When unsure of the speaker’s need or preference, it never hurts to inquire, “Are you asking for my opinion?” “Do you need to talk this out?” “Would you like some help brainstorming?” Use caution when proceeding down this lane, as engaging in these attempts, though valiant in nature and helpful at times, tends to keep us in our own heads and stops us from trying to put ourselves in our partner’s shoes for that moment. And if this is not what the speaker is seeking, the results can be disastrous. Heck, I remember playing a round of golf (terribly I might add) one day, and my partner having the good sense to simply ask, “Do you want my thoughts on your swing?” to which I answered a resounding, “NO! I want to figure this out myself?” Believe me, I was in no mood for helpful anything from anyone by that point, and I swear that if he had offered any advice, there may well have been manslaughter charges floating about…. Don’t forget, listening is about getting outside of ourselves, and truly trying to understand another person. So when John says to Mary, “Spending Christmas with your family is a pain in the neck for me,” responding with, “That’s because you don’t try hard enough to get along!” is far less helpful than, “Can you tell me what makes it difficult for you?” or, “What can we do to help make being with them less uncomfortable for you?” Finally, it is a safe rule to simply paraphrase what the other person is saying or is feeling. To do this best, we must try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and try to understand what they are feeling or what their message means.
Keep in mind that our goal is not to win the discussion, but to attempt in good faith to understand the essence of what our partner is trying to convey. This means that if they don’t use just the right words, or express themselves as clearly as we might like, this does not constitute an opportunity to slam them or beat them. Good communication certainly does not mean that we have to agree with one another, but it is only fair to understand someone’s perspective as well as possible before disagreeing with them!