A Primer on Effective Communication
Hopefully by now you’ve memorized my earlier article on communication. That article covered the basics of listening and speaking and can be found in the article archives on this website if you missed it.
Before presenting additional information on communication, it bears repeating that LISTENING remains the key to good communication. Good listening skills create an open, respectful atmosphere between people. Attentive listening conveys acceptance, caring, and an effort to understand another’s perspective and feelings.
This article will provide additional information on other aspects of communication, specifically (1) developing a climate for good communication, (2) intent vs. impact problems, and (3) no-lose problem solving.
DEVELOPING A CLIMATE FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION
Take a look at the following model about the impact of various behaviors on communication. This information can help you select the ways you want to behave in order to create the kind of climate you want.
These kinds of behaviors:
Produce this kind of climate:
|Which results in these kinds of feelings and responses:|
Good eye contact
Willingness to engage
It seems, given the above, that it should be relatively easy to produce a climate of acceptance and open communication. And yet, the reason most often cited for coming to therapy is problems in interpersonal relationships. And communication is the medium by which most problems in interpersonal relationships are created, and hopefully, solved.
It is important to remember that is it inevitable that any two people will have differences in their needs, wants, values, moods, priorities, and preferences. If you’ve ever lived or worked with others, you know how hard it can be just to arrive at a thermostat setting that suits everyone.
INTENT VS. IMPACT PROBLEMS
So what can one do to cut down on the amount of strife that is often generated when people clash over those differences? One important caveat is to remember that the INTENT you have when you say something can be very different from the IMPACT it has on the receiver of the message. Why is this so? All of us have an internal communication mechanism that works like a filter. Through this filter all messages must pass, whether we are sending or receiving the message. This filter is comprised of our background, our values, our beliefs, our sense of self-esteem, how it was done in our family, our hopes, etc., etc.
If you sense a message you sent was misunderstood, stop and check it out with the other person. If, for example, the other got hurt by something you said, when that was not what you intended, don’t assume he or she is just being difficult. Stop the process and ask: “It seems like what I just said hurt you, and I really didn’t mean to hurt you. What did you hear in what I said?” Slowing down the communication process, and taking time for clarification helps to open the channels of communication. Learning about your own and another person’s filters will help you to understand each other at a deeper level.
The next section is devoted to a problem-solving model that also might be helpful.
“NO-LOSE” PROBLEM SOLVING STEPS
The most common approach to handling conflict is a power struggle in which each person feels he or she must WIN the argument. Each person strives to prove his or her point and convince the other that “I am right about this and you should see it my way.” In such a strategy, someone must be the “loser” of the argument – if one is right, then the other must be wrong. And since no one likes to be wrong or lose, each person tends to argue louder and harder, which only serves to escalate an argument into a fight. No one really wins in this kind of fight, because if you win and leave your partner feeling like the loser, what have you really gained? As the old saying goes, you may win the battle, but chances are you will lose the war.
There is another way! In “no-lose” problem solving (also called “win-win” problem solving), the underlying principle is that each person’s needs, wants, perspective, and opinion, etc., are equally valid. In a mutually respectful relationship, the goal is to resolve differences in a way that leaves each person feeling valued, satisfied, and a “winner”.
There are two main commitments that must be made to accomplish ”no-lose” problem solving:
(a) Both parties agree to participate together in a search for a solution acceptable to both, and
(b) Both parties agree to stay in the problem-solving process until the matter is resolved, regardless of how long it may take (no getting angry and leaving in a huff — if a break seems appropriate, set up another specific time to continue).
Once those two assumptions are met, the method is as follows:
Make sure you have a clear definition of the problem, to which both parties agree. Try to make the problem statement as concrete and specific and non-blaming as possible. E.g., as opposed to ‘the problem is you never help out with household chores’, use language like ‘the problem is getting these specific household chores done.’
Generate possible solutions. Brainstorm about possibilities that might solve the problem — even ones that seem a little crazy!No evaluating or ruling out options allowed at this point. You may want to make a list of these options.
Once brainstorming is over, then evaluate the possible solutions that were generated. Important: Each person involved can rule out any option just by saying “that option doesn’t work for me.” He or she doesn’t have to give a “good-enough” reason or explain why it won’t work – they need only say it won’t work and that option gets crossed off the list. (If all options are ruled out, start over — generate more options, or possibly redefine the problem.)
Pick one of the remaining options that you can both agree to try for a while.
Set a time for a follow-up evaluation to see how the solution is working. If it is not working well, you can go through the process again and try something else.
Implement the option you have selected.
Obviously this approach is not a cure-all, but it can go a long way toward helping relationships get on a good track.
One last closing comment: Good communication is a skill. Any skill takes practice. You will probably feel awkward and stilted while you are getting used to it. But good communication is a skill very much worth working toward, one that pays huge dividends in terms of the quality of your relationships.