Learn to Communicate

Written by Geri Forsberg PhD

communicateCan you imagine what your life would be like if you couldn’t communicate? That means no tone of voice, no body language or facial expressions, no words, no alphabet. Nothing.

Effective skills in communication are necessary to maintain and increase the quality of our lives. If we can’t communicate effectively, we will be led in a direction we don’t want to go. We all have misunderstandings within our relationships. And it would be very easy to become confused, frustrated and disappointed simply because we are unable to communicate appropriately.

Broken and difficult relationships can be avoided by understanding the principles of communication, and the pitfalls we encounter.

When we know and understand the process of communication, we can actively implement the principles, hone our skills, avoid the problems and become the effective communicators that we all desire to be.

The language we use to symbolize reality is incomplete.

We will always leave something out when we’re retelling a story because we can never say everything about something. And the words we choose to describe something are not reality. They are our understanding of reality.

Do you remember the telephone game from elementary school? One child whispered a message to the next, who then passed it on down the line. By the time the message was spoken aloud at the end of its trip, it varied immensely. Why? Because each child understood the message differently and passed on what she thought were the important details.

How do we avoid the pitfall of miscommunicating reality?

Be careful in the words you choose. Be sure they symbolize what you really mean. And when you’re communicating with someone, ask questions to clarify what the person really intends to say. If you are unsure about what your colleague means when he tells you he doesn’t feel well, ask. Find out what his reality is.

What do you do if someone gets angry at you and says, “You’re all alike. I just can’t stand it.” The simplest and most natural thing to do is to react because she is angry. But imagine what would happen if you ask a simple question like, “What do you mean, we’re all alike? What can’t you stand?” Those questions and a few extra minutes allows the angry person to elaborate on her sentiments and inform you directly what is the matter. Then you can respond more appropriately.

We all see the world differently.

How we encounter the world has been influenced by who we are, our backgrounds, our education, our values and beliefs, our needs, positions, jobs, and more. In other words, we each see the world through our own set of lenses.

To become better at communicating, and to understand others’ perceptions, we need to ask questions. We need to listen. Learn to delay your reaction until you have more information so you don’t form inaccurate assumptions.

In the real world everything is extremely complex. With language, we simplify it by categorizing our words and ideas, and often the categories are either/or opposites.

In the process of simplifying things, we omit details, forget differences, ignore uniquenesses, and eliminate the various levels of meaning. When we view life through such a narrow spectrum, thinking that life is as simple as an “either/or” situation, communication breakdowns are bound to occur.

So, to guard against these pitfalls, we need to develop an open mind with each other and within our relationships. If you believe that reality is as simple as hot or cold, then you can only accept someone and accept what they say or you have to reject that person and reject what they say. However, if you have an open mind, you have more options.

In the real world everything occurs within a context.

We have probably all been misunderstood or had misunderstandings when something has been taken out of its original context.

Although we don’t fully understand how much our environment influences us, we need to consider that when we communicate. We must be able to understand the context of our own communication. And we must understand that every message we receive has its own context. By understanding these foundational principles of communication, we can avoid and even solve our communication woes.

With those principles in mind, here are five things you can begin to do today to help you become a better communicator:

  1. Ask questions. Don’t assume you understand what a person means. Once you ask a few questions, it doesn’t take long to really find out what she really means.
  2. Listen. To become a better communicator, you must be willing to listen so you can understand the other person’s perspective.
  3. Observe and be willing to verify the information you receive.
  4. Let people know what you are thinking by sharing it. By disclosing information about yourself, it aids the other person in understanding who you are and how you are understanding them.
  5. Remember that love covers a multitude of sins. If your motives are wanting to understand people and accept them for who they are, then communication will be easier. But if you set out to convince them that your way is the right way, then that’s not communication. And that’s not love.

Take some time to think about a specific communication problem (difficulty, challenge) you have had recently or in the past.

  1. In a few sentences, describe the problem.
  2. In what environment (context) did this communication problem occur? (home, extended family, workplace, other)
  3. Was the communication problem resolved? If so, was it resolved to everyone’s satisfaction? How was the communication problem resolved?
  4. What principles of communication could help you with this situation or other communication challenges in the future?

Now ask yourself some tough questions about how you communicate.

  • Am I seeking to understand the person?
  • Am I listening and really hearing what he is saying?
  • Am I expressing my own point of view so she understands what I mean?
  • Is there anything I’m doing in my nonverbal communication (tone of voice, body language, etc.) that I don’t intend to communicate?
  • Am I making a quick judgement without examining the facts?
  • Am I trying to see things from many different angles or am I just looking at things in an either/or fashion?
  • Am I adjusting my own communication patterns to suit the person I’m dealing with?

Developing your communication skills and abilities is a lifelong process. Throughout our lives we are faced with challenges in communicating effectively. You can learn to be a more effective communicator by:

  1. Observing and imitating excellent communicators.
  2. Learning from your own and others’ mistakes.
  3. Developing a conscious awareness of communication habits, patterns, styles, strengths, weaknesses.
  4. Applying principles of effective communication.
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