August 17, 2019
Effective communication is just as much about hearing as it is about being heard.
Effective Communication – The Secret To Getting What You Want
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about effective communication. These skills are more vital than ever before, as we’re living in a time of rampant misinformation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.
When we communicate effectively, we get more of what we want and less of what we don’t want.
Effective communication is the ability to briefly and concisely convey the message we want to get across. It’s about speaking clearly but also listening carefully. After all, the root of the word “communicate” is “commune,” or come together.
Effective communication is just as much about hearing as it is about being heard. Too often we’re so focused on whether the other person is listening to us that we forget to listen to them. But, if it’s a one-sided conversation, it’s not communication, it’s badgering.
One common problem with communication is that we make assumptions and jump to conclusions. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, we finish their sentence in our mind and come to our own conclusions.
As a psychotherapist, there have been many times when I’ve started a sentence with a patient, and they’ve finished it for me, but it wasn’t at all what I was going to say. My patient assumed that I was going in one direction when I was going in another.
In a therapy session, it’s not so difficult for the speaker to clarify their intention, but if the listener is doing this elsewhere, their tendency toward assumptions can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings and unpleasant interactions.
We may have a sense of where someone is heading in the conversation, but it’s always better to be patient and not anticipate their intention.
We need to be open-minded and allow the other person to make their point. Otherwise, we’ll be hearing something that they aren’t saying.
Effective communication has to be clear and direct. We can’t expect the other person to read between the lines or guess at what we’re trying to express. Otherwise, we risk misunderstandings and potential conflicts.
For the same reason, we can’t pretend that we get it when we don’t. The speaker will think that we’re on the same page when we’re actually in a whole other book.
A mistake that we make far too often in communication is being much too vague. We have to say exactly what we mean and not simply hope that the other person gets it. If they don’t hear exactly what we intended to say, they’ll never be able to give us what we want.
Often, in a romantic relationship, we make vague statements when our partner has done something to upset us. We’re afraid to be authentic because they might get angry at us or reject us. What we need to know is that if our partner gets angry at us for telling them that they’ve upset us, they’re not the right partner for us.
Another mistake we make in communicating is keeping things inside when we’re angry. We’re afraid to express our anger because the other person might not like it. We hold it in for as long as we can but then inevitably, it leaks out in passive-aggressive behavior or emotional outbursts. It’s always better to politely and respectfully tell the other person how we feel. Passive-aggressive behavior is extremely off-putting, as are angry outbursts.
Our attempts to avoid unpleasant confrontations backfire when we hold in our anger. Also, we need to know that if someone can’t tolerate our anger, they aren’t someone who we should associate with.
Of course, expressing anger should never be done with a raised voice. That’s unnecessary and overly aggressive. It’s enough to say, “I’m angry at you for X,” or “When you did Y, it made me angry.” These types of statements are clear and direct but not aggressive.
Expressing our anger this way enables us to closely observe the other person and will tell us whether they’re capable of hearing us and responding appropriately.
The appropriate response to the above types of statements would be something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” or, “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” If the person can’t respond in a reasonable way to our polite and respectful expressions of anger, they’re not really a friend.
One caveat: expressing anger in the workplace is a completely different situation. There, it’s often inappropriate to be clear and direct, especially about our supervisors.
We need to be more strategic and subtle so as not to offend or risk jeopardizing our position. In the workplace, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not engage in confrontation unless it’s strategically done.
It can be anxiety-provoking to communicate clearly. What if the other person doesn’t like what we’re saying? It’s disappointing to discover that a person we like or admire isn’t someone we can be open with.
On the other hand, if we aren’t clear and direct, the other person won’t know what we think, feel or believe and we’ll never get what we want.
It’s better to be disappointed early on than spend years with someone who can’t negotiate in good faith.
Effective communication allows other people to really know us. This way, if they like us and want to be around us, we know that it’s because of who we are. If they try to shut us down, we know that we’ll never get our needs met, so we don’t have to waste any more time on them.
When we don’t communicate effectively, people might be with us because they think that we’re someone that we’re not. This can lead to major misunderstandings and frustrations when the truth about how we think and feel final comes out.
We certainly don’t want to get married to someone based on them assuming that we’re someone that we’re not, and we don’t want to sign up long-term with a company because we assume that their philosophy is aligned with our own when in fact, it’s not.
Part of effective communication is a healthy confrontation, which is when we tell the other person about what we must have and what we can’t accept.
One of the biggest mistakes we make in confrontation is in using force when clarity would suffice. We raise our voice or use intense, even threatening words when simply being clear and direct is enough to make our point.
Bullies yell and shout; they send texts and tweets in all-caps, but it doesn’t make their message any clearer. Their sole purpose is to intimidate and ultimately silence the other person. This isn’t communication; it’s abuse.
Another mistake we make in confrontation is making “you statements” like “you never do X,” or “you always do Y,” or “you’d better do Z.” The problem with these types of statements is that they put the other person on the defensive and then it’s impossible to know whether they’re capable of hearing us and responding to us appropriately.
It’s always better to make “I statement,” as these build bridges rather than create defensiveness on the part of the listener. We can say, “I feel X,” or “I need Y.” These kinds of statements won’t make the other person feel blamed or coerced.
If the other person becomes hostile or defensive, we can see that it’s not because we delivered the message badly but because the person we’re speaking to isn’t reasonable or responsive to us.
Effective communication shines a light where there’s darkness and enables us to be seen and heard and appreciated for who we are. It shows us who we’re dealing with and empowers us to walk away from anyone who can’t acknowledge our feelings or meet our needs.
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About the Author
Marcia Sirota MD FRCP(C) is a board-certified psychiatrist, that does not ascribe to any one theoretical school. Rather, she has integrated her education and life experiences into a unique approach to the practice of psychotherapy. She considers herself a realist with a healthy measure of optimism. Sign up here for her free monthly wellness newsletter. Listen here to her latest podcast. mariasirotamd.com