Natosha is getting tired of people at work always asking her what she means. Whether it’s in a staff meeting or a presentation, she has a growing sense other people just don’t fully understand what she’s saying, which ultimately she personalizes to mean that they don’t understand her. It’s lonely and isolating. She’s beginning to withdraw or show signs of frustration anytime this sensitive area gets touched, thus making matters worse. Natosha has noticed that she does better when she is talking to just one person at a time, but so much of her current work life revolves around groups that she isn’t sure she’ll make it much longer.
Oscar is in a serious, committed relationship. He loves his partner, Willow, and sees a lot in her that makes him think their relationship could last long term…except for one thing; although Oscar knows that his partner has his best at heart, there are times when she says things in a way that puts him down. They have talked about this issue, and it is a constant point of contention between them. Willow has been open to changing the way that she says things and wants to communicate in a way that makes Oscar feel valued and appreciated, but recently she has begun suggesting that some of this is “your problem,” and is becoming resentful at being asked to change the way she fundamentally communicates. They can’t seem to find the line between simple communication woes and more serious matters.
Alexander is winsome and charismatic, and as a rule, he is well-liked by most everyone. For those that are slower to warm-up to him, it is usually because his extroverted, outgoing nature can be received as “a little intense.” He talks a lot and naturally “takes up space” in a room that is hard to overlook, even when you genuinely like him. Over the years, Alexander has worked on this and tried to be aware of the impact his personality has on other people, but it still spills out in ways that he doesn’t intend sometimes, particularly in communication. Recently, a female friend accused him of “mansplaining” something to her — she felt he jumped into the conversation, cut her off, and began explaining what she ought to do. Alexander didn’t intend any of that, but he knew he’d be lying if he said this was the first time he’d heard that complaint. He wanted to communicate his true heart.
Communication issues are frustrating!
Communication is the foundation for how we interact and build relationships with others. Not being able to express ourselves clearly can leave us feeling misunderstood and lonely. The way that we intend to communicate something is not always how another person actually receives it, and communication is a tricky business in this way as a great many conflicts arise from what is “lost in translation.” Identifying the issues that are getting in the way of clear communication is a great way to reduce conflicts and misunderstandings in your life. Being an effective communicator is important because words are a crucial way that we can share our thoughts and feelings with others.
What Gets in the Way of Effective Communication?
As you might imagine, any number of things can get in the way of clear communication:
- Walking on Eggshells: Sometimes stress about saying “the right thing” can actually cause you to be less clear than if you were comfortable and relaxed with what you want to say.
- Out to Lunch: Being distracted or lacking focus can hinder your communication if you are unable to be present with the person that you are trying to communicate with.
- Body Language: Not being in touch with another persons’s body language or emotions can set you up to communicate when someone isn’t open to hearing what you have to say or not ready to get into a conversation with you.
- Mixed Messages: Your own body language may communicate different messages than what you are verbally communicated if you feel particularly conflicted about a topic of discussion. This can be true when you don’t want to hurt someone with what you’re saying, but also when you do.
- Trouble in Mudville: If you have had a long-standing disagreement with someone or a particular history of arguments, you may have reached a point where you can no longer effectively hear what they have to say on a moment by moment basis. This can be in couples or marriage relationships, or with co-workers or friends. Instead, every time they say most anything, you’re still hearing all of the things they’ve said before that hurt you, continually re-experiencing old wounds that have never fully healed. In this case, a counselor is usually the best solution.
How to Deal with Ineffective Communication in Others:
Whatever the cause of communication issues, remember that if you are working with or in a relationship with someone who struggles with communication, it is going to challenging at times — count on it! However, this does not make it impossible. It will be helpful for you to help them navigate the process of communicating. Try things like:
- Acknowledge what’s been said so far, then ask clear and pointed questions about the information you still need. “So, I’ve heard you say a lot today about what’s gone on for you in the past few months as you’ve been working on this project. What I haven’t heard you articulate that I’d really like to know more about is precisely what the outcome is.”
- When they are unable to respond to your questions with the information you’re looking for, highlight for them how you’re experiencing their responses and continue to “sculpt” what you’re looking for by talking about yourself. “You’ve tried to give me a global picture of the outcome of the project, but I think if I’m in your shoes, I’m wanting to communicate at least some about a day by day revenue outcome as well. That’s the kind of thing that drives me in terms of understanding whether a project is successful or not.”
By being willing to hang in there, tedious though it may be, you are modeling effective communication as a way to invite the other person to engage in a communication style that is more clear.
How to Deal With Your Own Communication Issues:
It may be harder to admit, but sometimes the largest part of communicative difficulty can be on our own end, whether it is the way we are sending messages or the way we are receiving them.
So…what if you’re the one who struggles to communicate?
- If others seem frequently confused by what you are saying, don’t be afraid to ask questions so that you can be sure that you are being understood, and invite others to ask questions for additional clarity. “Does that make sense to everyone? What questions do you have?”)
- Become aware of your body language and the body language of others. The non-verbal signals that you send to others can sometimes speak even more loudly than you words, and vice-versa. Look for signs of closed or defensive body language such as furrowed brows, folded arms, clinched fists, looking away, etc.
- Think of other people’s responses. Experiences, feelings, and thoughts can filter the way the people receive what you are trying to communicate. For example, recognize that if you are trying to communicate a religious sentiment in a group of persons who have been abused by pastors or churches, it isn’t likely to go over well. Getting in tune with other people’s experiences will help you better understand what, how, and whether you should communicate in specific situations.
- Use short and clear sentences to communicate your message. Try not to say with 30 words what can be said with 15.
- Be aware of your tone. What you say might be technically accurate, but if you use a tone that is offensive or off putting then others will not be open to listening to you. This is the age old, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
- Practice active listening, which sounds easy requires great focus. Active listening involves not only truly comprehending what the other person is attempting to communicate by listening intently, but also by displaying in an outward, undeniable way that you are doing so! Reflect back what you’ve heard (“Okay, so what you’re saying is ________,”) and check that your perceptions are accurate (“Is that accurate, or did I miss anything?”). And remember, people may sometimes tell you that you heard them, then go onto correct you anyhow or add additional items you missed (“Yes, you’re hearing me! And, it’s important that you know that ______.”)
- Find ways to relax. Most people are helped immensely by simply becoming aware of their breathing, which is often shallow and uneven when trying to communicate, forcing the brain to fire the limbing “fight v. flight” system and restricting our ability to communicate creatively even further. The practice of mindfulness may help here.
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