How Can I Become a Better Communicator?
Janet Myatt, MA
Learning how to communicate effectively is one of the single most important things we can do for ourselves, our relationship with others, and with the world around us. It leads us into areas of personal growth that promote deep healing and awaken the mind to much higher states of awareness.
Many communication training programs have focused on specific well-established skills. And, of course, these skills do provide important tools that help communication flow more smoothly. They are good to know, and will help open up communication. However, these skills alone are not enough to deepen our relationships because of themselves they don’t get us to the levels of connection that produce intimacy, safety, and healing.
For nearly ten years I worked in corporations teaching effective interpersonal communication skills to groups. The program was designed to help people learn how to diagnose the cause of a problem, work effectively with motivation and ability problems, and deal with emotional behavior. The skills were great! When people remembered to use them, they did experience better results. But, in the course of an actual situation in the workplace or at home, few people were able to employ the skills longterm because they became emotionally triggered. Emotions (their own and the other person’s) aroused perceptual distortions and biases to fire up, and these biases would end up controlling the entire conversation.
I found this to be true not only for my clients, but for myself as well. Clearly, I understood the skills and believed in their value. But, in real-life situations a cognitive understanding of how to communicate better was not enough to offset the perceptual distortions and resulting pain that arose from strong emotions, entrenched beliefs, and habitual patterns of reactivity.
I was frustrated by this mismatch. I wanted to discover what would make a real difference. Eventually, I came to understand that basic communication skills do not provide the depth of psychological and spiritual insight needed for developing emotional intelligence and intimacy. To truly connect with another, we must be able to create opportunities for understanding the triggers and behavioral patterns – our own and the other person’s – that impact the relationship.
First, let’s consider five basic communication skills. The examples will reflect the typical communication skills taught in many programs. I hope to show that while the skills are a step up, without the more subtle heart-centered approach to connection, they can still easily fall short.
(The examples are between a couple, but these skills apply to other relationships too.)
1. “I” statements
This skill teaches individuals to speak to their own emotional experience rather than blaming and shaming the other person. The focus is on the speaker owning how they feel and how they are currently impacted by the other person’s behavior. "I" statements help make it easier for the listener to hear the speaker's point of view.
“You” statements place responsibility for the speaker’s emotions on the other person. This is a disempowering mindset for the speaker to be in. It grows anger and sadness by teaching the speaker they have no power over their emotional state. It also shuts down communication as a “you” statement is perceived as an attack by the listener, and this provokes a defensive reaction. Defensive reactions may be aggressive – fighting back, or passive – shutting down, crying, walking away. But either way, open safe communication is now blocked.
“I’m angry that the kitchen is a mess when I left it clean.”
“I’m sick of you never cleaning up after yourself. You always expect me to do it for you.”
While the former is a step up from the latter, it can still provoke a defensive/offensive reaction in the listener depending upon the speaker's tone of voice and the overall intention. So, we need to know more about how to connect in a way that will invite open sharing rather than open warfare.
2. Avoiding the “but” sandwich.
Hearing a compliment linked with a criticism negates the positive message and promotes a feeling of being manipulated and unappreciated for what has gone well. Learning to use “and” instead of “but” helps keep the positive part of the communication valid in the listener’s mind.
“Thank you for mowing the yard, but you left the clippings all over the sidewalk.”
The second half negates the opening thank you. The message is, “you didn’t do it right.”
“Thank you for mowing the yard, and I’d appreciate it if you’d also put the clippings in the garbage.”
The latter acknowledges the mowing without negating it with the follow-on request, so it's an improvement. However, it doesn't include the listener in the second step - it comes across as a demand. This may still precipitate a defensive reaction on the part of the listener. Let's consider a better way.
3. Diagnosing the Problem
Too often we get off to the wrong start in a conversation because we walk into it with a set of assumptions that often sabotage the communication. Taking the time to properly diagnose the underlying cause of a problem not only helps individuals gain a clearer understanding of the situation they want to discuss, but provides them with an effective roadmap for solving the problem. Motivation problems are handled differently than ability problems. And, mixed problems require both sets of skills. Emotional reactions require yet another set of skills that we'll get into in a moment.
In our example above, the communication could be improved by starting with a diagnostic question. In that example, the initiator skipped to the end of the problem solving process by stating the solution he or she wanted. Consequently, the receiver could easily feel criticized and/or unappreciated for what they did do.
With problem solving, then, it's helpful to:
Start with a diagnostic question
Avoid jumping to conclusions
Get the other person's input.
This invites them into the conversation rather than being talked at.
“Thank you for mowing the yard. Are you planning on putting the clippings in the garbage today?" [Diagnostic probe]
“No, I’m tired.” [Is this an ability or a motivation problem?]
“Are you saying you don’t want to do it or you’re unable to do it?” [Another diagnostic probe.]
“I don’t want to.” [A motivation problem]
Motivation problems are best handled by communicating natural consequences
To the task: “I’m concerned about the clipping getting in the pool.”
To others: “Someone will have to net them out before they cause algae to grow.”
To the person: “The water chemistry may get messed up and cause you a lot of extra work.”
“I appreciate your hard work mowing the lawn, and at the same time I’m concerned about the clippings getting in the pool.”
From here, the speaker will continue to work with the other person until they arrive at a mutually agreeable plan. If the first consequence to the task doesn't generate agreement, the speaker will try a few of the other types in an effort to find a shared value.* Once a plan is figured out, the speaker will conclude with a summary statement and a thank you.
"So, you're going to eat lunch and take a short break, then get the clippings in the trash. Thanks so much for working this out with me, I appreciate your hard work."
*The point in the conversation where the speaker is trying to find a way to create buy-in is where things can often go awry. The speaker might easily become provoked if the listener doesn't care about the same things or sees the situation differently. And, the same goes for the other person. Judgment and the need to control others are huge obstacles to effective communication and problem solving. This is why learning how to really listen to others with the goal of understanding where they're coming from and why is crucial. We'll talk about this more in a bit.
Ability problems are best handled by asking the individual for their ideas of what to do first.
“Thank you for mowing the yard. Are you planning on putting the clippings in the garbage today?"
“No, I’m tired.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to do it or you’re unable to do it?”
“I hurt my back putting the mower away. I need to rest.” [An ability problem]
“I’m sorry you hurt your back. Rest sounds like a good idea. What do you have in mind for the clippings?” [Asking for their idea first.]
“I’m going to work something out with Danny when he gets home from soccer.”
The person with the ability problem generally has the best solution already in mind because they're closer to the issue, so ask for their idea(s) first. When they don't know what to suggest, brainstorming is the next step because it includes the person in the decision making. Buy-in is always higher when the other person likes the idea.
“That’s great. I’m glad you have a plan, I was worried about the pool."
When dealing with issues where the emotions aren't provoked, these skills can help keep the relationship on solid ground and are quite effective. However, when emotions do come into play or differences of opinion square off in a combative manner, then these skills alone will not suffice. Both parties will need to value the relationship above the problem solving agenda and be willing set the problem solving aside for the moment to attend to the feelings that come up. This involves learning how to listen deeply to another person and show care and concern for their point of view even if you see things differently. We'll get into this in the section on listening for understanding below.
4. Appreciation and Gratitude
All long-term relationships (personal, social, and business) need fertile ground to keep growing and thriving. You might think of the relationship as a garden that each of you cultivate together. What you put into it is what you’ll get out. Expressing appreciation and gratitude are the fertilizer that keep the garden healthy and the relationship on a strong foundation of affinity. This is especially true during times of stress and conflict. Right when it’s hardest to do is when it’s needed the most. Making it a priority to focus the mind on what’s going right not only protects the relationship, it keeps each individual’s mental-emotional world grounded and balanced.
“That’s great. I’m glad you have a plan, I was worried about the pool. Thanks again for taking care of the lawn today. I appreciate how hard you work to keep the yard looking nice and the pool healthy for all of us. I hope your back feels better.”
5. Listening for Understanding
Listening for understanding includes a well known skill called active listening. The listener restates what they heard taking care to name the emotion, include the facts communicated, and end by checking for understanding.
Let's take a look at an example:
Speaker: “I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late”
Listener: “You’re upset because I’ve made us late, is that right?”
This process helps:
Keep the focus on the speaker and communicates the message that they matter.
Reduce the tendency to attend to the inner lawyer or protector.
In my experience, people can learn and begin to use this skill in a workshop or class fairly easily because they're working within a role-play and real-life issues aren't actively in their face. But outside the classroom, people nearly always fail to use it well or consistently. That's because to truly listen, we have to learn how to manage our internal reactivity. Our own inner dialogue takes up a great deal of our attention and instantly fires up our core adaptive reactive patterns. The speaker and listener often seem to be in separate conversations. Both are squarely inside their own perceptual bubbles, interpreting things through their own personal biases and triggers. Both may think they're listening to what the other is saying, but they're really listening to a distorted message rooted in their own inner emotional life. They're not listening for understanding. They're listening to defend, attack, and win.
To become a good listener requires cleaning up our own emotional world a bit first. We have to develop the ability to become centered in a neutral, loving, and receptive idea of who we are and our relationship with the world. It's nearly impossible to show up with an open heart and mind to attend to another's world when we're full of pain and fear.
In our example above, the speaker is experiencing a strong emotion and attempting to communicate her feelings. Typically, the listener will immediately feel defensive and his internal protectiveness will fire up - I call this the inner lawyer or protector. When this happens, it's difficult to fully attend to the speaker.
The speaker: “I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late.”
The listener hears this as, “You’ve messed up again. Your feelings aren’t as important to me as other people’s.”
The listener's internal distress causes the him to miss the fact that his partner (friend, coworker) is worried. And worse, the listener is teaching himself he is not valuable! His own interpretation agitates a negative state that is likely to cause him to become defensive or shut down.
"What's the big deal, it's a party! Why're you always so uptight?"
As the listener remains focused on himself, his reactivity in turn teaches the initiator that she is also not valuable.
In my own experience, I've had to go beyond active listening into what I call listening for understanding. Family therapist and author, Susan Stiffelman, described this level of listening with a helpful creative visualization in one of her webinars. She said to think of each person as living on their own mental-emotional planet. To connect with them, imagine you're an ambassador visiting this new world. You want to understand how things work there. You're not there to judge or fix anything, just really understand it.
It's important to learn that listening for understanding doesn't require agreement. You don't have to agree with what they're saying, just be willing to understand how and why they're perceiving things the way they are. What's their emotional algebra? How do things add up for them?
Understanding how someone else is perceiving things gives the us invaluable information. We begin to understand how and why our behavior may provoke a certain reaction in them. And they learn the same about us. Through listening for understanding, both (all) parties build a sanctuary where old wounds, biases, and misperceptions are safely brought to light. We find we have people who can help us check our thinking when we're stuck. And we develop deep connections that validate an inner sense of belonging, value, and worth. All of us yearn to experience being deeply cared for. These experiences feed the soul and help both (all) parties evolve and heal.
As far as problem solving goes, working together to find effective solutions becomes so much easier and productive when both (all) parties learn to:
Trust one another's intention to work for the greater good of the relationship
Respect healthy boundaries, and
Recognize and appreciate the particular talents, skills, and abilities each bring to the table.
Learning these skills, and more importantly doing the inner healing work that makes them readily accessible, takes us on an amazing journey of self-discovery and liberation from fear. It all begins with a willingness to understand that:
All perception is biased, therefore no one has a handle on absolute truth.
Becoming aware of our core negative beliefs and our knee-jerk coping responses empowers us to move beyond them and heal emotionally.
Evolving our coping strategies leads to healthier relationships and a healthier life. I call this gaining mastery over our mental and emotional apparatus.
Let’s look at an example of listening for understanding. (I'd like to note up front that I feel it's impossible to fully convey the magic of this skill in a written script. But, I can give you the gist of it. Learning the skill from a trained therapist and then using the skill in real conversations is where the magic really emerges.) Okay, here we go!
“I’m upset that you weren’t ready on time; now we’re going to be late”
“You’re upset because I’ve made us late, is that right?”
“Yes, I’m worried Suzie will be upset with me. She always makes snide remarks when we’re late.”
“You’re worried Suzie will say something snide about us being late?”
"Is there more?"
"Yes, I always feel so embarrassed when she does that."
“It makes sense that you’re upset that I’ve made us late because you’re worried that Suzie will say something hurtful and you'll feel embarrassed.”
The receiver learns to understand how their partner’s emotional world currently works.
Forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and respect can flourish when an individual learns to be open and curious about the other person’s current sense of reality. This is hard to do without some deeper psycho-spiritual work. Yet, the benefits far outweigh any cost in effort. Understanding another’s patterns of behavior and how they get triggered can help people get out of recurring patterns of limitation, pain, and disappointment.
To do this, each individual will need to bring to light their own core emotions and reactive patterns. And, make space for the fact that other’s also have core emotions, a core pain-body. People's behavioral reactions to core emotions are often different and even oppositional. But the common denominator is a feeling of fear, unworthiness, and lack of safety. When we understand that perception is not truth, we have room to grow. We can decentralize our identity out of our thoughts and emotions making room for a change in perception that is healing.
In our example above, the listener also has core emotions that provoke his pain-body. Finding the right time to explore his emotional world will be important. Each couple/group will have to figure out the timing of this for themselves. Perhaps the second conversation will follow the previous exchange or happen on another day.
Let's take a look:
“When you’re upset I feel terrible. I’m sorry you were upset we were late and I’m also mad that you didn’t ask me why I was late or express any interest in my feelings.”
“You feel terrible when I’m upset. You’re sorry I was upset but mad that I didn’t ask why you were late or ask about your feelings. Is there more you’d like to say?”
“Yes. I feel like this happens a lot. I feel like you just assume your feelings are all that’s important, and if I’ve displeased you I should be punished for it.”
“You feel I put my feelings above yours a lot. And you feel I want to punish you when I’m upset with you. Is that right?”
“Is there more?”
“I don’t like feeling punished. It makes me feel hostile. I don’t feel I deserve to be treated like that and it makes me not want to be around you.”
“You don’t want to be around me when I’m upset because you feel I’m punishing you.”
“It makes sense that when I’m upset and don’t ask for your input, you feel punished. You feel you don’t deserve it and become hostile and withdrawn. Is that right?”
You can see how much is revealed in this exchange. Individuals and couples can learn how to respond to each other’s core vulnerability in a safe, compassionate manner that empowers them to experience true intimacy. From this safe, nourishing environment, personal healing and growth occurs for everyone involved.
At the same time, you can also see how difficult it is to learn how to do this at first. Developing a sense of self that is not over-identified with our perception OR the other person's perception takes a deep commitment to healing the mind. In my experience, A Course in Miracles is one of the most transformational catalysts of psycho-spiritual healing available at this time.
Through studying the principles of forgiveness, wholeness, and brotherhood a threefold benefit unfolds:
Individuals begin to evolve and actualize their highest creative potential,
Their relationships begin to fulfill their highest potential,
The collective whole evolves consciously.
Without profound psycho-spiritual healing, basic communication skills training is not enough to create meaningful, lasting change. But together, they become a powerful force for change that supports highly successful relationships. And ultimately, a better more peaceful world can arise.
If you’re ready to move beyond basic communication skills training, I hope you'll join my upcoming class Spiritually Centered Interpersonal Communication II. This offering will benefit both new and returning students as they everyone works together to develop and deepen their communication effectiveness.
 Communication Makes the World Go Round (click here for information on the three primary obstacles to effective communication)
 Perception game. Write a large 3 on a sheet of paper and place it in the middle of the room. Notice as you move around the perimeter of the room that the same symbol changes meaning depending upon your position in the room. The symbol remains the same, but what you perceive changes depending upon your point of view.