Effective communication 101
From time to time in life, we have to have difficult conversations with others. Maybe we haven’t been taught how to communicate well. Many of us will try to avoid these conversations at all costs. We see them instead as a ‘confrontation’ to be avoided. If we think about conversations with other people in which we don’t have a similar point of view as a confrontation, then we are always going to want to try and avoid them. The problem with not speaking out about how we are feeling is that sometimes we can end up feeling unheard and resentful.
I have a friend who was regularly upset about the fact that her brother wouldn’t reply to any of her text messages. His repeated ‘ignoring’ left her feeling invisible and unimportant. Over time this feeling went from one of mild irritation and upset, to full blown anger and resentment. Her brother was completely unaware and carried on with the behaviour. It all got too much for my friend and one day she called him up. By this point she was so upset about it as she’d left it for so long that they ended up having a huge argument. He angrily defended himself as he felt attacked by her.
Later when things had calmed down, he called her up and explained that he was bad at texting. He admitted that he was embarrassed about his spelling and thought his messages were clumsy and texting made him anxious. Of course, this is perfectly reasonable. The problem was that my friend had made the incorrect assumption that it was about her. This is a common thing that we humans do.
We tend to worry that we’ve done or said something wrong to people when in fact they are just trying to get on with their own day. People tend to be focussed on their own problems, like in this example. My friend could have avoided the argument and the upset, had she skipped the first part and followed these tips for effective communication:
- Change how we think about communication. We have lots of people in our lives and we cannot expect to agree on everything. But not speaking out may create further problems. People are generally willing to see our point of view in a situation if we can be courageous enough to speak up.
- Try wherever possible to avoid talking about the issue when we are in an emotional state. Wait until the situation has passed, this will mean that we can access our cognitive brain and will be able to deliver the information in a much more objective way. It will also mean that the other party will be much better able to receive the information.
- Try and avoid using ‘you do/don’t’ or ‘you say/don’t’ say’ or ‘you make me’ in your communication. If we try flip this and try and talk about ourselves and how we’ve been feeling, it will feel less like an attack. The other party will be less inclined to feel like they need to defend themselves. Here’s an example of what my friend might have said to her brother when she was feeling upset:
“You don’t reply to my text messages, I’m sick of this. I make all the effort all the time, I’m not sure why I even bother when you clearly cannot find 2 seconds in your day to text me back. I’m done with being the only one to make the effort!”
Her brother would have felt attacked and shouted back to defend himself. Someone else might have shut down and refused to communicate altogether. Both scenarios make things worse and neither scenario results in my friend feeling heard. Hardly effective in changing the situation.
Never try and get your point across while you’re feeling emotional
If she’d waited until she felt calmer, she might have said:
“I’m starting to feel a little unloved. When I take the time to send you a message and I don’t get a reply back, it makes me feel like I’m not important. Can you explain why you don’t text me?
Her brother would have been much more likely to engage in negotiation and effective communication because he wouldn’t have felt attacked. He could have better receive the information she was trying to give him. What’s more, he’d have been able to appreciate how she was feeling and show understanding. This approach would have been much more likely to be effective in changing the situation and would probably have avoided the conflict.
So to summarise, 3 rules of effective communication:
- We all have different opinions from time to time, this does not have to equal confrontation
- Wait until emotions have died down. This goes for written communication, emails and text, and spoken communication too. Leave a decent about of time – several hours at least if possible
- Try and make the focus of the conversation the feelings that the situation invokes in you. Much less likely to elicit anger and defensiveness.