"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” - Epictetus
Communication requires at least two people, and effective communication requires two or more people speaking, but, more importantly, listening (preferably to one another). Human beings, as social animals, have developed highly complex forms of conversing. Animals such as whales, birds, apes, and many more species can communicate complicated messages between pods, flocks, and troops. However, for humans, no longer do you have to be near your intended recipient to judge facial cues, body posture, or inflection. Now, with cell phones, email, texting, and other mediums like social media, even written forms of correspondence can be delivered instantly without delay. But think back. Are you ever misunderstood over email or text? And is anyone ever truly understood on social media? Though individual answers to these two questions may vary, it is arguable that miscommunication runs rampant in person and through writing. Let’s leave social media out of this conversation, mostly because it is exhausting, but also to avoid communication that is irrationally impassioned, as we will cover that later in this post. Instead, let’s focus on good old fashioned, in-person conversation. Surely enough can go wrong with this type of communicating without including bots and anonymous comments on a message board.
We have established that effective communication takes multiple people cooperating, but let’s start with the individual. Do you find yourself in many arguments or confrontations? What is your initial reaction to someone who angers you? Do you lash out, get argumentative, withdraw? Maintaining a level head when angry can be difficult, especially when you don’t feel heard. So, before you lash out, try taking a deep breath and consider your words carefully, or the other person will not hear you either. When anger is aroused, it is important to recognize the power of your words. What is said will always be said, despite the most perfect apology. Sometimes, hell yeah, profanity is necessary. However, name calling is likely never called for regardless of the situation. Anger is a powerful enough emotion without adding unneeded nastiness. When you argue from such an emotional stance, it is difficult for you to think and converse rationally. If emotions are running too high as to not allow effective communication, excuse yourself from the situation and return when all parties are calmer. Before you decide to have a knock-down, drag-out fight, consider what happens after what comes next. Sure, you can apologize, but the words said may still have a lasting impact.
On the other side of the spectrum from angry, aggressive speak is fearfulness in expressing what you truly need or feel. Some individuals shut down at the thought of angry communication and withdraw from the confrontation. Some people of this type just go with the flow, waiting for the other person to vent and get his or her point across. It is not as though these non-aggressive individuals do not have anything to say. Instead, they bury the comments down, creating the sensation of never being understood, with no agency. Their body language might seem down, or defeated while they are screaming on the inside, wanting to be heard. A person who is angry has a confrontational posture with matching facial expressions and his or her words are inflected with challenge. In a person who becomes withdrawn during argumentative discussion, his or her body posture is closed and sunken, with downcast eyes. Learning what to look for in your conversation partner can be pivotal. If you are speaking to someone who uses a highly confrontational style of speaking, you can excuse yourself and suggest talking later. Likewise, if you are upset with someone who withdraws when confronted, you can respect the other person’s boundaries and agree to pick the conversation up during a calmer time. It takes at least two people to communicate effectively. If one person is yelling, and the other shuts down, that is not a conversation so much as a poorly timed lecture.
What if you and the other person are both fiery conversationalists? Maybe you both shut down. For the fiery individuals, taking a step back from the disagreement is probably still a good idea. For the shut down individuals, a step back may be counterproductive as neither person is likely to re-engage in the discussion, setting the stage for misunderstanding and resentment. So, for both the hotter temperature debaters and the cooler communicators, there is a simple, calming sentence to be spoken either to simmer or enliven the conversation. It is referred to as an “I Statement” and involves a simple, direct formulation. When confronted with anger, disappointment, frustration, fatigue, or any other disagreement that might exist, take a brief step back and take a breath to engage your thinking brain. Then, complete this stem: “I feel…when you…because…” For example, “I feel disrespected when you don’t call me back because it comes across like you don’t care.” Instead of an outburst, an allegation, or other unhelpful comment, the “I Statement” calmly describes how the individual feels as a result of someone else’s action. This technique may disarm the angry person and compel the quiet individual to speak.
Regardless of the conversation style, it is important to remember that we cannot control another’s reaction. However, certain skills could help influence said reaction. If you offer an open stance of communication, the other person may as well. This means adopting a willingness to calmly exchange ideas, being open to new perspectives, and refraining from becoming volatile. All of this is far easier to write than it is to accomplish in practice, especially in a heated moment. However, next time you are in one of those moments, inhibit your possibly natural response and try formulating an “I Statement” to see if the altercation takes a different path with a different outcome.
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– Richard DeBord
M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)
Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard