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.